I’ve spoken with some of my friends and colleagues about author China Miéville. I’ve suggested him to several people and shared in praise of his work among a few. Unfortunately, despite his growing popularity among sci-fi fans, he remains relatively unknown. His name often tends toward the bleak, obscure, and esoteric underbelly of speculative fiction: dystopian settings, flawed characters, Lovecraftian horror, and an alienating aura of inhumanism permeate his works. While there are those who might raise an eyebrow at the reference to the term more often associated with the poetry of Robison Jeffers, I feel that the connection is mildly warranted. There is an urgency in Miéville’s prose, perhaps even more so than in Jeffers’s poetry, to dissociate ourselves from the realms of the human. This urgency rises from the author’s profound ability to create realities that strike his readers as impossibly present; there they are, on the page before us, as though Miéville has visited those worlds and is dictating them to us. And yet, they are almost unimaginably unreal, cities and settings spawned from a truly uninhibited, original mind.
China Miéville is likely one of the most influential writers of contemporary speculative literature, and his work doesn’t isolate itself to the genre of mere “fantasy” (a genre term that conjures images of dragons and wizards more often than not, and yet a word that, in its original sense, should actually describe all fictions…). I use the term “speculative” because I feel it captures and nearly encompasses Miéville’s work (“hypothetical” would be another appropriate term, of course). His diegeses are occasionally entirely physically separate from our world (as in the fascinating Bas-Lag novels); other times, they represent fictional settings that occupy our world (as in the imagined European setting of The City and the City); and then some novels depict fantastical goings-on within places entirely known to us, yet infused with strange occurrences (as in the London setting of Kraken). Finally, there is the Miéville who utilizes a human universe for his fictional setting, and yet takes his readers on a journey that spans far beyond the time and space familiar to us, as in the novel that I intend to discuss in my first non-introductory post: Embassytown.
Embassytown is Miéville’s first venture into what most critics and fans would classify as traditional science fiction (although there is very little traditional about Miéville’s work). The first-person narrative is told by an immerser named Avice Benner Cho and describes her experience on the planet known as Arieka, where she is a human colonist in the novel’s eponymous city. In the far-future setting of the novel, humanity has discovered a kind of substratum to the known universe, which they call the immer. Only specially trained astronauts can travel in a conscious state through this substratum, which allows for much faster and more efficient travel than normal spaceflight (those untrained must be put into hibernation during travel lest they suffer agonizing nausea and potentially even worse symptoms). Avice, an “immerser,” is one of these professionals. However, the descriptions of the immer and Avice’s profession only figure as a backdrop to the narrative; the primary plot revolves around the relations between the human colonists of Embassytown and the natives of Arieka, the Ariekei. Communication between the two races is strained due to a unique biological feature of the Ariekei: they have no spoken material language. The natives communicate with each other through a biological instinct hardwired into their bodies. Avice describes the Ariekei “language” (referred to the human as “Language” – capitalized) as follows: “Their language is organised noise, like all ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen” (Miéville 55). Due to the difficulties of communication, specialized human translators are necessary, known as Ambassadors. The conception of Ambassadors in Embassytown is one of Miéville’s most unique exhibitions of science fiction genius.
A single human individual cannot communicate with the Ariekei. Ambassadors must always consist of two humans, genetically engineered, raised and educated together, who speak in alternating patterns known as the “Cut” and “Turn” voices. In order to successfully establish a linguistic link between human beings and Ariekei, there had to be an empathic connection. For the Hosts (a human term for the Ariekei), material words, sounds, did not suffice. There had to be an essence behind them. This essence, which lurks behind every utterance the Ariekei, prevents them from participating in many of the aspects of language that humans take for granted. They cannot lie, and cannot even conceive of lying. An important aspect of the novel explores an institution called the “Festival of Lies,” wherein human ambassadors tell lies to the Ariekei who then experience ecstatic reactions, since they cannot biologically internalize this foreign sensation. The Hosts then also attempt to lie in response, often with unsuccessful results. Furthermore, the Ariekei cannot learn other human languages; they cannot differentiate between English and Chinese, or Spanish and Russian. All human language is simply noise. Ambassadors can only communicate to the Ariekei in their own tongue, and then translate what has been said into human languages. Finally, the Ariekei cannot “play” with language; they cannot understand palindromes, create spoonerisms, or any of the other fun stuff we enjoy with our own language. We get into a rather gray area, however, when it comes to figurative language. Certain human beings, including the narrator herself, become “metaphors” or “similes” for the Ariekei; but this is an obscure performance, an esoteric kind of ceremony: “What occurred in that crumbling once-dining room wasn’t by any means the worst thing I’ve ever suffered, or the most painful, or the most disgusting. It was quite bearable. It was, however, the least comprehensible event that had ever happened to me” (Miéville 25). Metaphors and similes take on the form of ceremonial rituals for the Ariekei since they are, at their crudest definitions, lies. Robert Burns’s love is not like a red rose; the Ariekei could never internalize such a concept. For them, such qualifications require non-biological institutions to concretize them.
Ariekei language is not really a “language” in our sense of the term, which is why the colonists capitalize their visceral tongue (“Language”); it’s a kind of meta-language, a physical, biological, neurological process of interaction. A traumatic sentiment transfers immediately; there is no mediating translation, no distance between the idea and the utterance. Once readers come to terms with this aspect of the plot, it becomes clear why Miéville chose a quote from Walter Benjamin’s essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”:
“The word must communicate something (other than itself).”
Benjamin is here referring to the influential component of Saussurean linguistics: that material language communicates, above and before all else, its own materiality. The word “book” does not contain any inherent essence that qualifies its material formulation as the signifier for the idea of a “book.” It possesses meaning simply because it is the word “book” and not “chair” or “tree.” The items of material language exist in a differential relationship to one another. There is no essence beyond them; their meaning is determined based on degrees of difference and similitude.
For the Ariekei, however, there is some essence there, a metaphysical presence that bleeds through in their utterances. As readers, we should recognize the rather blatant parallel to this that Miéville is drawing in Embassytown: the presence of the immer.
In Embassytown, there is an interesting spatio-linguistic dynamic at play, which manifests in the relationship between the nature of the immer and Ariekei “Language.” Just as the utterances of Language open up a meta-linguistic realm of pure essence and idea, the immer exists as a kind of substratum to the actual, physical universe: some deeper essence beyond the merely superficial. It may be tempting here to begin drawing parallels to some kind of Platonic idealism, but I would encourage readers and critics to avoid such misrecognition. Miéville classifies himself as a Marxist, and while we can argue about Marx’s idealism on another blog, we must recall that, first and foremost, it was Marx’s aim to formulate a materialist philosophy, which has in turn gone on to influence droves of 20th-century critical and literary theorists. So rather than posit a kind of spiritual idealism at work in Miéville’s novel, I would argue that the author is challenging typical common-sense notions of capitalist hegemony by offering a hypothetical.
Many human beings admit to “knowing” that words don’t actually possess any inherent power, and yet we speak with them as though they do. Likewise, many of us admit to “knowing” that money doesn’t actually possess any value, and yet we continue using it and treating it as though it does. A nod to Slavoj Žižek would be appropriate here. So, what is Miéville doing in Embassytown? What is the hypothetical? The hypothetical is to establish a situation wherein the essential impotence of our language is brutally exposed to us; to suggest a form of life that doesn’t abide by what humans consider a kind of natural communicative, evolutionary process. Our species has evolved in a certain way, has developed certain faculties; but this doesn’t mean that we were meant to develop in this way, or that it was predetermined and our mode of communication is the best or even highly efficient. The purpose of inhumanism, anti-anthropocentrism, is to expose the crude, and often violent ways in which we impose and project our conceptions of reality onto other living things (I could go much deeper into some details of Embassytown here, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for those who haven’t read it; and, furthermore, I expect I will go into much more detail when I get further in my academic career). Miéville uses language to navigate this idea. Through the description of something like Ariekei Language, human language becomes far more strange and artificial – the Ariekei even need to “perform” our language, in a sense, in order to come to terms with it; but the analogy between Language and immer should clue us in to the fact that there is much more at stake.
Avice describes the immer in the following way:
‘This is the third universe,’ I told Scile. ‘There’ve been two others before this. Right?’ I didn’t know how much civilians knew: this stuff had become my common sense. ‘Each one was born different. It had its own laws–in the first one they reckon light was about twice as fast as it is here now. Each one was born and grew and got old and collapsed. Three different sometimes. But below all that, or around it, or whatever, there’s only ever been one immer, one always.’ (Miéville 34)
In Miéville’s novel, human exploration of the immer also yields other results: the discovery of previously established culture. “When immernauts first breached the meniscus of everyday space,” Miéville writes, “among the many phenomena that had astounded them was the fact that, even on their crude instruments, they had received signals from somewhere in the ur-space. Regular and resonant, clear evidence of sentience” (32). In both aspects of the novel – language and space – there is the suggestion of some hidden or secret essence, something lurking beneath the surface. Ariekei Language and distinct universes are utterances of a sort, but they aren’t signs in the tradition of Saussurean representation. They are surface tissues that possess a direct connection to an underlying force. Furthermore, this secret essence betrays hints of sentience in both aspects as well: the foundational biological principles of life itself, and the traces of an older, preexisting civilization, respectively. Throughout history, Western culture has often been at the forefront of imperialist expansion, and this has always been characterized by two specific components (in addition to others): the implementation and regulation of a national language, and the displacement of native cultures. Readers are exposed to both of these components in Embassytown, although not always in their traditional hegemonic forms. Perhaps one of the most glaring observations in the novel is that humans have, in a sense, been beaten in the race of colonization. The discovery of beacons throughout the immer suggest, as one character points out, that the substratum of space has already been explored by some previous race: “‘You don’t put a lighthouse where no one’s going to go. You put it somewhere dangerous where they have to go. There are reasons to be careful in this quadrant, but there are reasons to come–to pass through, en route somewhere else’” (236). In both cases, Miéville radically subverts traditional notions of language and imperialism (merely two occasionally tangential aspects of capitalist hegemony) by introducing a hypothetical situation in which these Western anthropocentric institutions suddenly seem strange and impotent, and by forcing his readers to take a disassociated stance. This is Miéville doing what he absolutely does best: subtracting the “human” from the world.
This study is not complete, nor do I believe that it is, without a doubt, well-conceived in all aspects. I do, however, feel that these are some important parts of Embassytown that warrant future study, and that the novel is a supreme example of great and revolutionary science fiction. This is not only what speculative fiction should do, but what all great literature should strive to do: illuminate the contradictions and arbitrary configurations of culture.