There are a number of things to like about China Miéville’s books, but I think the thing I find most delicious is the aggressive banality juxtaposed with the fantastic elements. That’s evident in his latest, Embassytown, which features aliens John W. Campbell* might’ve loved: beyond human comprehension, and equally incapable of comprehending humans, for profound reasons of biology, culture, and language. But the sort of unsexiness I’ve praised before is very much in evidence, no matter how exotic the aliens (or humans): they still deal with interpersonal strife, public health crises, political shenanigans, and societal change. Since I think class is a dandy lens through which to examine societies, real world or fictional, Miéville’s Marxist sensibilities† have the effect of grounding his stories in the plausible.
From a scene shortly after the political elites and some citizens of a colonial outpost realize that Something Has Gone Terribly Wrong™:
“The Hosts aren’t saying anything. I think…” I said carefully. “I think…EzRa…or we…must have accidentally done something that offended them…badly…”
“Oh, bullshit,” Wyatt said. I blinked. “This isn’t one of those stories, Avice. One moment of cack-handedness, Captain Cook offends the bloody locals, one slip of the tongue or misuse of sacred cutlery, and bang, he’s on the grill. Do you ever think how self-aggrandising that stuff is? Oh, all those stories pretend to be mea culpas about cultural insensitivity, oops, we said the wrong thing, but they’re really all about how ridiculous natives overreact.” He laughed and shook his head. “Avice, we must have made thousands of fuckups like that over the years. Think about it. Just like our visitors did when they first met our lot, on Terre. And for the most part we didn’t lose our shit, did we? The Ariekei—and the Kedis, and Shur’asi, and Cymar and what-have-you, pretty much all the exots I’ve ever dealt with—are perfectly capable of understanding when an insult’s intended, and when it’s a misunderstanding.”
That exchange reminded me of a scene in The Scar, in which the MacGuffin is revealed to be a red herring and its former owners far more concerned about espionage than a purloined relic.‡ It’s appropriate for that moment in The Scar to be a true reveal; Embassytown‘s Wyatt is more mouthpiece than character, but he’s used sparingly and the instances of impatient colonial explication are fun. His presence allows for a more complicated political scenario which doesn’t break down along species lines: there are three major sides in the beginning, fracturing variously throughout the novel.
Though I have quibbles,§ Miéville largely sells it with a first person narrative. Avice is compelling in her non-compellingness, and no matter how bizarre (or differently bizarre) the situation there’s a certain (unsexy) grittiness, a sense of people just muddling through. When breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader that she’s not going to explain a plan before narrating the results (“Revelation was spoiled for him, but I can retain it here, for you”), Avice underlines the artificial nature of the narrative, of stories in general. Overly self-aware characters can come off as hackneyed, or worse; but Avice, Wyatt, and The Scar‘s grindylow feel possessed of self-awareness hard won after thoughtful consideration of the world and their position in it.
* I rather suspect that’s about all Campbell would’ve loved about Miéville.
† Less explicitly on display here than in, for example, Iron Council or Kraken.
‡ “You were doing a feasibility study…” is a fantastic line.
§ And some reservations. Given the scope of the narrative, it’s easy to read Avice as honky human savior of the Hosts, rather than someone of a more complex identity, provisionally belonging to one of two societies which have changed (and continue to change) as a result of contact, cooperation, and conflict with one another. While sticking to his guns and keeping the focus on Avice helps sell Miéville’s story, it also flattens it in some rather regrettable ways.