SciFi Discussion – Embassytown

Book cover of Embassytown by China Mieville

On Tuesday 21st we successfully navigated our way across the Immer to discuss Embassytown by China Mieville.

“Embassytown: a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerser, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts – who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes. Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts. And that is impossible.”

Did We Like Embassytown?

Most of us seemed to enjoy it, although a few us we’re so keen on it. We all liked the idea but, for some of us, the characters did not display enough emotion. It was not an easy read, due to the amount of different ideas to take in, and we wondered whether the inclusion of emotional characters would have overloaded the book, or our minds! Some of us did find it a chore to read since it did not seem to have a narrative and wandered around. It was suggested that it could have been written in this way to reflect the way the different races could not communicate easily. Embassytown is a book of ideas as opposed to a book about characters, perhaps even a sound box for China Mieville to play around with language. We thought that there were things which were not explored enough, although this can be said for many of the books that we have read.

Is It SciFi?

Embassytown is set in a far-away universe, has spaceships, robots and aliens. Yes, its SciFi!

We found the bio-rigged machinery interesting and speculated about whether such technology was plausible or even being developed at the moment. We liked the houses that are built of muscle fibres. Perhaps lab-grown meat that currently being grown experimentally could eventually be grown into the walls and buildings of the City.

We noted that there wasn’t really any explanation of any possible science behind the biotechnology of the hosts or of the Immer. The Immer did form a major part of the book and was featured heavily in the first half of the story. The story then focussed on Embassytown itself and the city of which it was part. The bigger thing, that the ruling planet of Bremen wanted to explore past the frontier of Embassytown was left “off camera”. We thought that this was a good device to look at the details of the smaller picture. What was happening on Embassytown was of vital importance to those living there, yet Bremen would have destroyed the lot of them to achieve its aims, if necessary.

It was interesting that what were assumed to be beacons in the Immer turned out to be lighthouses. Instead of making early explorers of the Immer avoid areas of danger, the beacons/lighthouses attracted them. This misunderstanding led pioneer immersers to their deaths.

Ambassador, You Aren’t Spoiling Us

We didn’t form any attachment to Avice. She wasn’t very emotional, she kept calm and carried on. She was always too busy trying to keep the people of Embassytown alive. She seemed to just along with whatever plan other characters had, without giving it any thought. She was the girl who was hurt in the darkness and who ate what was given to her.

Being an immerser who had left and returned to the planet of Arieka, Avice had dual insider / outsider perspective. We wondered whether the book was written as if Avice was writing a report or was it just her account of what had happened? Who is her audience? Mieville was accused of breaking the fourth rule that “every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”

The Ambassadors each consisted of two identical clones who were able to communicate with the Hosts. Each Ambassador had a name created from two short names such as BrenDan and MagDa. We we’re really keen on any of the Ambassadors as characters. The fact that failed Ambassadors were kept locked in a secret asylum provided a discussion point about morals.

Our favourite characters were Spanish Dancer and Ehrsul. We also liked the Trunc animals that split into two. We were disappointed that the other intelligent species were not included more.

We thought it was good that there were not detailed descriptions of physical appearances, particularly of the Hosts (Ariekei). This allowed our own imaginations to come up with our own ideas about what they looked like. We enjoyed describing our visions of the Hosts which ranged from peacocks to giant insects. We thought since Avice had been brought up with the Hosts that there would be no need for her describe their physical appearance since she would have always been used to seeing them.

Mind Your Language!

A major part of Embassytown is about language and communication, as well being about “Language” through which Hosts communicated with themselves. Some people in Embassytown could understand Language, but only the Ambassadors could communicate with the Hosts using Language.

We thought that the existence Language was improbable. How would Hosts actually learn to communicate when it wasn’t really a communication tool? Could you really communicate at all if you cannot express “this thing” or “that thing”?

The Hosts’ Language was not generated through thinking. This reminded us of George Orwell’s 1984 where Big Brother wished to drastically reduce the number of words in the dictionary to prevent people from plotting against authority. The concept being that if you cannot say it, you cannot think it.

We did like the use of the English language and words used the Emabssytown. We also liked the way the Hosts’ Language was written down, like a mathematical fraction, but wondered how this might work in an audiobook version! We think that Embassytown would make a great TV series, if enough identical twins could be found to act as the Ambassadors.

See You Next Book!

In Embassytown time is commonly expressed in kilohours, and when Avice refers to time in years people think she is strange. At Manchester SciFi Book Club we have come to develop our own unit of time. The time interval between each of our meetings is 4 or 5 weeks. Since it takes me that length of time to read a single novel, we have adopted a new unit of time, called the “Book”. On departing our meeting we now say “See you next book!”

Alright, Me Old China

Our average score for Embassytown was 3.8 out of 5.

Quote of the evening:

“I’m want to write a book about language and I’m going to see how weird I can make it!”

Manchester Sci-Fi Book Club Contacts

You can contact us via Twitter @mcrsf_madlab using #mcrsf

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We also have a group on Google which we would encourage you to join.

Next Sci-Fi Book:

  • September 18th – Foundation by Issac Asimov

SciFi Books for Following Months:

  • October 16th – Flatland by Edwin A. Abott
  • November 20th – The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  • January 15th – Reamde by Neal Stephenson
  • February 19th – Behold the Man by Michael Morcock
  • March 19th – Neverness by David Zindell
  • April 16th – Jasper Fforde by Shades of Grey
  • May 21st – The Truth (Discworld Novel 25) by Terry Pratchett

SciFi Comic

It has been suggested that we read SciFi Comic Y:The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, in collaboration with the Mad Graphic Novel Group.

See you next book!

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