Embassytown by China Mieville; Del Rey

Embassytown was published in 2011.  It is the second book by China Miéville that I’ve read.  Honestly, I was not overly impressed with this novel.  There are some readers who adore everything that Miéville does, just because he does it.  I have expressed similar sentiments regarding the popularity of Grant Morrison and his work.  Miéville is very educated and he deserves all the praise in the world for writing intelligent books.  He takes very academic and intelligent concepts and creatively (and easily) develops novels around them.

In this particular novel, Miéville is working with philosophy of language.  I’ve done my share of PoL, and I have never been wow-ed by it.  Since, 2002, perhaps, it’s become all the rage in philosophy departments, though. I suppose it’s the end result of analytic philosophy and the ostracizing of traditional metaphysics. Derrida, Ricouer, Gadamer, N. Salmon, Donnellan, Kripke – all of these PoL heavyweights would probably be very interested in Miéville’s novel.  However, I am not an analytic philosopher and, generally, find PoL tedious and something that lives in its own little bubble. It’s obvious that Miéville pulls from Ricouer’s works (for example: The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning of Language).  The main character herself plays a massive role as the narrator in this work, which can be analyzed in terms of literary narrative tone, but also in terms of the hermeneutics of the narrator.

Miéville has great skill in utilizing concepts usually banished to classrooms by instantiating them into a fictional world.  And not just any world – he develops worlds that are foreign, fantastical, and futuristic.  It takes a great deal of effort to succeed in doing what Miéville does.  Indeed, his books would be enjoyed by philosophers, but this novel also takes some of the concepts that those very philosophers work with and then forces the non-philosopher reader to learn, understand, and cope with these concepts, too.  That’s no small task.  On the other hand, Miéville is probably lost on a lot of the reading public – who do not have the aptitude for or interest in PoL concepts, etc.

Sometimes I feel like Miéville is showing off how smart he is.  I do not feel this way all the time, but sometimes. And at those times, I wonder who, exactly, he would be showing off to? The philosophers won’t really be impressed and the work will be lost on those without any training/aptitude.  And frankly, this novel qua novel is not very good.  The characters are all very bland and flat.  In fact, many of them seem downright toxic in their inability to affect the reader.  The plot is basic and not at all original in science fiction.  But my biggest issue was that most of the chapters repeat and repeat and repeat the same information – stalling out the storyline.  Some chapters, really, just repeat the chapter before or after.  I feel that towards the end of the novel, Miéville kept telling us over and over about Ambassadors committing suicide – but he tells us this so many times, that I feel there were literally billions of Ambassadors for that many suicides to have to be mentioned.

And here’s an example of a great idea – the “twins” (used loosely) or “doppels” of people created to be “Ambassadors” to the Hosts (read: non-humans) is a concept that is really science fiction/psychology/philosophy.  There’s so much food for thought (Self, schizophrenia, telepathy, brain function, etc.) that could be developed. But the Ambassadors are all very uppity, weird, and impersonal that it ruins some of the awesome idea that Miéville has.  Even Bren or Vin (the two most developed Ambassador-types) are still just distant characters.

I feel that the ideas and concepts that Miéville uses in this novel are awesome and intelligent and well worth giving five stars.  However, the novel itself is really not more than two stars.  The storyline could be told in about 200-fewer pages.  And the characters were really unimportant; the idea of the characters far more important.  But, this is not a thesis on PoL.  This is a novel.  There’s a difference [sic] and that difference is not simply a matter of perspective, semantics, and hermeneutics.  When Miéville is able to write five-star novels with five-star concepts/ideas – he’s going to write books that will never be equaled. Until then, Embassytown is a tough read, but better than many books out there.

3 stars

One comment

  1. This one was okay, but of the Mieville books I’ve read to date it’s the one I liked the least. Usually the ideas he incorporates into the story always play second fiddle to the plot; they’re fun and they make the story itself interesting, but they’re very much not the focus of the book. Which is what language feels like, in Embassytown. Sort of like he had an idea about language, and just to make it fun he built a book around it.

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