by China Miéville

A Review by Scott finished Jan. 20, 2013

In one sentence: Strong science fiction elements and satisfying philosophical thought experiments make this an appealing book for a variety of readers.

This review will contain spoilers!

In many sentences:

Nathan once commented that he would enjoy reading a story that is about a truly alien alien. In other words, a creature so apart from humanity that it would be impossible for the two species to communicate, interact, or even remotely understand one another. In some ways, Embassytown is that book. The Hosts are so foreign that Avice doesn't even know if they consider her to be a living, sentient creature because she cannot speak Language, and thus cannot speak at all. What do they think of when they see her? What do they think of when they see Ambassadors who, while capable of speaking, are in fact 2 people?

Of course, as the story progresses we learn that communication is possible, and once Avice teaches Spanish Dancer and his companions how to lie, they do see Terre people as sentient. So, it does not go quite so far as to make them completely alien, but it does a great job of presenting a species that is nearly too incomprehensible for humanity to understand.

I really enjoyed this aspect of the book, and I think Mieville did a good job executing on it. He presented the problem in a clear manner, without resorting to repetitive lamentations about how hard it was to understand this alien species. Having Avice as a resident of Embassytown made this more workable, as she grew up with it, and didn't know anything else (until she left of course).

Speaking of Avice – what a great character. She was smart, level-headed, and cool without trying. Her reactions to all these crazy events was always too tough, so real, that I really grew to like her more and more as the book went on. Ultimately, she epitomizes the Floaker – going with the flow in a tough, resilient manner. A laid back attitude, but in a respectable, and not simply lazy manner. I also liked how Mieville was able to weave together Avice as the intellectual, discussing advanced aspects of language and philosophy, with her as the Immerser, down to earth and using slang. It led to me liking her yet more.

My only real complaint with this book was how it started off with a unique structure, bouncing back and forth between when Avice and Scile met and then returned to Embassytown, and those times after EzRa first spoke. Unfortunately, though, less than half-way through it dropped this structure and just simply told the rest of the story. The rest of the story was still good, but it lost a lot of the flare that made it interesting beyond just the story.

For a book that is ultimately about (for me at least) relatively obscure matters of language and philosophy, I was really impressed by how interesting Mieville made Embassytown. It certainly isn't to make such subjects into an entertaining plot, but Mieville pulled it off and I definitely recommend it to sci-fi fans, or anyone interested in philosophy and language. The science fiction elements are strong, but those who enjoy the mental experimentation of philosophy would definitely enjoy it even if sci-fi isn't in their normal reading circles. This is the first book by Mieville I've read, and I can't wait to read more.

Originally Published April 28, 2011

Digital edition:

369 pages - May 17, 2011

Book Keywords

Related Books