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Review: Embassytown China Mieville

books Updated: Jan 06, 2012 19:27 IST
Rajiv Arora, Hindustan Times
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Embassytown

China Mieville

Macmillan

Rs 550 pp 490

I  doubt if the ‘monsters under your bed’ trick ever came handy to put China Miéville to sleep. Any reader of his more than half a dozen novels will be familiar with Mieville’s predilection for fiends as well as his mastery of writing science fiction (SF), New Weird and fantastic literature, which over the years has acquired a cult status. But cult isn’t about rage, it’s more an euphemism for minority. Apart from hardcore readers and enthusiastic publishers, hardly anyone wants to be associated with SF. It’s not considered literary enough.

Miéville remains unfazed by such mumbo-jumbo. He tells me, in a telephone interview, that “it’s not been too hard” for him to sell monsters to publishers. “SF is like punk rock,” Mieville says, implying that good writing in the genre, like good music in punk, come and go but is never out of fashion.

Often, it’s Miéville who rides this wave. His books, whether its The City & The City, a noir murder mystery set in two superimposed cities, or Kraken, in which a talking and scheming tattoo chases a giant squid, are refreshing in their approach. In Embassytown, the latest novel by the 39-year-old with a doctorate in Marxism and international law, language with planetary romance are ruffled together.

Embassytown is a human diplomatic zone in the middle of Arieka, a city that stands on the edge of the known Immer (universe). The complex structure of the language of the Ariekie, or the Hosts, makes it impossible for them to interact with the human settlers. Miéville’s ‘aliens’, thankfully, are not little green men, but each of them has many multi-jointed legs, two mouths that speak two different words at the same time (shoash/to-tuan, for example, is the name of a character), knocking out any possibility of lying.

Along comes a ‘rogue’ Ambassador — genetically engineered linguists who facilitate communication — who entices the Hosts to deviate from speaking truth. To save the city from its people and their new ‘addiction’, Miéville gives us Avice Benner Cho, the human protagonist adept at using ‘similes’ or scripted experiences through which the Hosts equate themselves with others in similar situations.

The crossword-like structure and the esoteric terminology of Embassytown can baffle even the most dedicated Miéville reader. One requires a lot of patience and a fecund imagination to read Embassytown, or any Miéville book for that matter. Perhaps, it takes as much to write one. So when he says, “As a reader, I enjoy books that I have to work out,” it’s clear that he expects his readers to follow his example to enjoy the “limitlessness of the genre”.

It is the lack of boundaries that Miéville wishes to use to his advantage by writing a book in every sub-genre of SF and follow a one-book-a-year schedule. His next novel, Railsea, is set to release in May and is being touted as a fantastic, new age take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Such efforts at pushing the envelope are what help Mieville and SF bob in and out of the confines of ‘mainstream’ literature. And as long as Miéville enjoys doing what he does while keeping his readers, publisher and critics happy, nobody is complaining.

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