China Miéville mines the brutalities of miscommunication in Embassytown
In Embassytown, China Miéville embarks on his first foray into genre science fiction. But instead of battleships and laser arrays, he focuses on the periphery of an empire, on a planet wrapped in a cocoon of volatile interstitial “immer.”
The title settlement was ostensibly established for the twin goals of communicating with a strange race of Exoterres known as “Hosts” and obtaining biorigged technology, such as the oxygen-emitting “aeoli” and the flesh-created airships called corvids. But because Hosts evolved with two mouths and their minds directly communicate without the signification indemic to Terre (human) language, the Hosts can only communicate with “Ambassadors,” human twins as close to one person with two voices as people can be, with names to match—CalVin, MagDa, JoaQuin.
With the scenario established, Embassytown attempts to wrestle with the problem of communication. The novel comments on the difficulties of storytelling itself; it is filled with small instances of people mishearing each other, from an adult who remembers a children’s rhyme poorly to the narrator’s failure to realize the true purpose of a communication automaton.
It touches on the brutalities occasioned by the attempt to combine two estranged minds into one—the Ambassador training doesn’t always take, and what to do with those people whose ability to speak with the Hosts is sup-optimal presents the settlement with a problem.
Along the way, Embassytown comments on colonialism as well; an Embassytown functionary mentions to the narrator that behind every story of crazy natives misinterpreting an explorer’s gesture lies an empire trying to steal the silver.
In a way, Embassytown is more optimistic than other works in the Miéville canon. The attempt to communicate bears fruit; the conflict is resolved largely due to the efforts of an intrepid band of semiotic innovators. The way is not without suffering—hordes of Hosts mutilate themselves to escape the noxious effects of certain kinds of language on their biology—and the action does not close on a world where “everything is all right.” But while work remains, the primary conflict of the plot is resolved satisfactorily; there are some happy endings.
But for all this optimism, Embassytown is not a simple paean on better communication. Indeed, many problems come from attempts at communication, most notably from the fact that those who can communicate, the Ambassadors, are able to build their power on the assumption that the Hosts cannot communicate with anyone else.
Instead, Miéville suggests that the task is harder than simply speaking: It requires recognizing in the other a mind equally capable of interpreting the world. Miéville’s argument is not in favor of language itself, but mutual recognition. It is about seeing each other as people with voices as valuable as our own. In a world full of estrangements and miscommunication, Embassytown presents a reflection worth pursuing.