Friday, 10 August 2012

Embassytown is a Good Book.

Or why you should read Embassytown by China Mieville

Embassytown has a sort of poignancy that makes it a really beautiful and moving story. The book tells the story of Embassytown, a small human outpost colony/enclave on an inhospitable alien world populated by the tolerant Ariekei hosts, and the conflicts that arise between humans and their alien hosts based essentially on miscommunication. The story is told in the viewpoint of Avice Benner Cho, an Embassytown native who became a simile in the language of the Ariekei as a child, an “Immerser” interplanetary sailor, and finally a key observer and participant in the conflicts that unfold. Conflicts… that are deliberately referred to only vaguely.

Embassytown, though, is really a book about memes (in the idea that propagates through society sense instead of the cats that can haz things sense). Specifically it's a book about the intersection of memes and language and how language is a medium for propagating memes in both its capacity to convey ideas and in its capacity to inform identity. This whole discourse plays out through the novel’s collision of cultures, the Embassytowners and the Ariekei, and the way in which adaptations in language allow memetic cultural contamination between groups. As such Embassytown is also a commentary on Colonialism and the meeting of cultures in general. Mieville has some strong statements about the importance of communication and about the ways people on either side of a cultural collision react: specifically those that seek subjugation, those that seek to protect cultural purity and those that collaborate to share memes and create new understanding. This is a very smart book.

What might be under appreciated is that this is also a very exciting book. For being a book about memes and cultural contamination and language, it is a surprising page turner. The characters are well realized and sympathetic, the story is keenly focused, and the stakes of the story are dramatic and emotionally resonate. Mieville really makes you care about the Embassytown’s aliens and colonists and that, more than anything, makes for an engrossing read.

I would recommend Embassytown to most readers. It's very ambitious and smart, but also immensely readable and exciting. However, It can be a bit dense at times, and requires a certain amount of investment and engagement with the themes to work its magic. So if you like books that make you think and feel check it out. If you like to be spoon-fed your fiction.... I'd look elsewhere.

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