Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Embassytown

It's Nebula awards season, i.e. the time period between the nominations and the awards, where I try to read the nominees and decide on which book I would choose. I've never gotten through all of the nominees, and this year will be no different, but I hope to read four or five of the six. Firebird, which I have previously reviewed, is on the list. Of the other five, The Kingdom of Gods is by far the longest, and it's the third book in a trilogy. So I won't be reading that unless it wins, at which point I'll feel obligated to go back and read the previous two book. That may keep me busy until next year's awards. Embassytown, by China Miéville, was available as a library e-book, so it seemed a good place to start.

EmbassytownEmbassytown by China Miéville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Miéville's The City & the City, a Nebula nominee from two years ago, but I didn't feel like it was "science-fictiony" enough to win the award. Embassytown is definitely sf -- it takes place in a far-future setting on a planet where the humans have established communication with the very alien creatures known as "the Hosts" or "the Arieke".

Communication was not easy to establish, since the Hosts have two different types of "mouths" and only recognize speech performed by pairs of mouths. They don't recognize electronic speech, so the only solution is to use pairs of humans -- the trick is that the humans need to be synched up better than most two humans are.

The humans' first idea is to use identical twins (at least three of this year's nominees mention twins or higher-order multiples). As a writer for, I was glad to see that the author realized that identical twins are not usually alike enough for this to work -- the early experiments were mostly a failure. On the other hand, after that they turned to clones. Clones are actually less alike than identical twins, so I'm not sure why the idea would work any better. There were some references to techniques to sync up the clones, but those techniques should work even better on identical twins.

Anyway, the book starts as an interesting investigation of the weird social and linguistic structure of the Hosts. I began to wonder if Embassytown was going to be one of the rare works of science fiction without a lot of high drama -- mostly an exploration of an alien society. High drama, however, appears in quantity in the final two-thirds of the book. Without too many spoilers, I'll say that everything about the setting gets upended. I actually found it a bit much and perhaps would have preferred the type of novel I thought at first I was getting.

The characters weren't entirely compelling, and the resolution of conflict towards the end of the novel was fairly implausible. (Again, I'll stay spoiler-lite, but my reaction was, "Really? This changes everything?!") Miéville is a good writer, but this effort fell short of the mark in several ways. I am not rooting for this book to win the Nebula.

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