At this edge of town the angles and piazzas of our home alleys were interrupted by at first a few uncanny geometries of Hosts’ buildings; then more and more, until our own were all replaced. Of course we would try to enter the Host city, where the streets changed their looks, and brick, cement or plasm walls surrendered to other more lively materials. I was sincere in these attempts but comforted that I knew I’d fail.
China Miéville's Embassytown (2011) isn't the easiest book to synopsize. Oh, much of it is straightforward enough, and straight out of the classic science fiction toolbox: it is the far future, humankind has scattered among the stars (we have become, our narrator Avice notes, "homo diaspora"), and it's only a matter of time before they screw things up with some alien species or other. This sort of SF can rarely resist replaying the story of early-modern European explorer-imperialism, even if the point-of-view has shifted - somewhat - over the years, to acknowledge that the Others may have had a point.
In Embassytown, the narrative positions us - at least initially - with the intrepid human strangers in a strange land. The novel's primary setting is a small human colonial outpost on a planet named Arieka, whose indigenous inhabitants (the Ariekei, or 'Hosts') speak a language so beyond human comprehension that it, and the psychology behind it, are quite literally alienating. Future-humans haven't changed a great deal; childrearing is a collective endeavour and there are those, like Avice, who are specialists at navigating the reality-bending "immer" space/time through which it's necessary to travel to get across the universe, but otherwise people still eat, drink, argue, have sex and pair-bond in most of the same ways we might expect. Embassytown itself bears all manner of familiar features, like the children's games Avice recalls in the passage quoted above, involving daring each other to trespass in places their parents have warned them away from, and lavish parties for the colonial elite that resemble a Ferrero Rocher ad, except with more (largely metaphorical) back-stabbing.
Between all this and the first-person narration we are steered, therefore, in the direction of seeing things from the human side. The Ariekei/Hosts, after all, are much more difficult to get a handle on. Avice, again, recalls for us encounters from her childhood:
They were not the only exoterres I’d seen. There were exot inhabitants of Embassytown - a few Kedis, a handful of Shur’asi and others - but with them, while there was strangeness of course there was never that abstraction, that sheer remove one felt from Hosts. One Shur’asi shopkeeper would even joke with us, his accent bizarre but his humour clear.
Later I understood that those immigrants were exclusively from species with which we shared conceptual models, according to various measures. Hosts, the indigenes, in whose city we had been graciously allowed to build Embassytown, were cool, incomprehensible presences. Powers like subaltern gods, who sometimes watched us as if we were interesting, curious dust; and who provided our biorigging, and to which the Ambassadors alone spoke. We were reminded often that we owed them courtesy. Pass them in the street and we would show the required respect, then run on giggling. Without my friends, though, I couldn’t camouflage my fear with silliness.
Here and elsewhere, Miéville's interest in language as a signal of culture, as something that can include or exclude, shows through. The text is peppered with neologisms coined by this future society to describe both the familiar and the unfamiliar, and while "exoterre" is not difficult to parse (compared to say, "immer"), we are nonetheless expected to parse it for ourselves, to extrapolate from words we already know and work its meaning out from context; Miéville does not gloss it for us. (In its shortened form, as "exot", the word also recalls 'exotic', of course, ever a loaded term implying a power relationship of normality vs othering, between the viewer-default and the viewed-exotic.)
Neologisms are not unknown in genre fiction; nor are entire invented languages. But Miéville doesn't so much create a new language for his non-human race, as imagine a new type of relationship to language. The Ariekei's Language - it always gets a capital L, like the singular entity it is - comprises two curious features whose connection isn't obvious even by the time you've finished reading the novel. (Perhaps, as Abigail Nussbaum suggested in her review, that's because they don't really fit all that well together; maybe Miéville's reach has exceeded his grasp this time.) Firstly, each Ariekes has two mouths, each of which contributes (different) sounds simultaneously to form words in Language. It is, moreover, possible to reproduce the sounds exactly but still not be actually using Language in a way that the Ariekei can understand: they speak from two mouths because Language must be spoken that way, as the simultaneous act of two harmonised mouthpieces of a unified mind.
Humankind's early experiments with programming computers to communicate with the Ariekei, therefore, failed utterly: for the Ariekei, a computer-generated word in Language "means nothing, because it’s only sound, and that’s not where the meaning lives. It needs a mind behind it". Instead, the colonists have had to breed a separate class of humans purely for the purposes of acting as Ambassadors to the Ariekei: pairs of clones, trained from an early age to think and speak as if they had one mind, and very carefully treated by all concerned as if they are single persons. Even their names are twinned (CalVin, SibYl, MagDa). When Avice, on one occasion, indicates that she can tell which half of one particular Ambassador is which, she is infringing a central social taboo of Embassytown, and giving a grave personal insult to boot.
Secondly, and in some way that I confess I don't quite understand deriving from this dual-mouth/single-mind form, Language has no figurative element. As Avice remember her ex-husband Scile explaining to her, in Language "words don’t signify: they are their referents". Spoken words don't represent, they are:
Their language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen.
Ariekei, we're told, have no ability to talk in abstractions; they cannot speak about what is not. If they want to use figurative language, they must first create it in the world: they have to make similes literal before they can use them, by engineering a scenario to which, having witnessed it, they can later refer back. When they say that something "is like the stone that was split", they mean a literal stone that was literally split. Avice herself, as a child, was caught up in one of these scenarios; she is now a part of Language, and Ariekei speak her. The incident is never recounted directly, only referred to (and it sounds grim) - she is "girl who in pain ate what was given her" - which, she comes to understand, is "an expression intended to invoke surprise and irony, a kind of resentful fatalism".
We're repeatedly told, during the novel, that this absence of abstract language must mean the Ariekei also can't think abstractly, but I don't think this can be right, or the intended reading. Rather, the humans for a long time assume astract thought is impossible for the Ariekei, when in fact the Areikei can and do think abstractly, they just lack the ability to put it into words. How else could they know they lack a simile to express an idea if they don't even have that idea in the first place?
Another consequence of all this is that the Areikei cannot (or struggle to) lie. Here is something humankind, through the Ambassadors, is able to help them with:
For Hosts, speech was thought. It was as nonsensical to them that a speaker could say, could claim, something it knew to be untrue as, to me, that I could believe something I knew to be untrue. Without Language for things that didn’t exist, they could hardly think them; they were vaguer by far than dreams. What imaginaries any of them could conjure at all must be misty and trapped in their heads.
Our Ambassadors, though, were human. They could lie as well in Language as in our own language, to the Hosts’ unending delight. These eisteddfods of mendacity had not existed - how could they? - before we Terre came. The Festivals of Lies had occurred almost as long as Embassytown had existed: they were one of our first gifts to the Hosts.
This is something that is accelerated by the arrival in Embassytown of EzRa, "the impossible new Ambassador". He/they has/have been sent from the imperial metropole in an effort to undermine the colony's growing independence in its manufacture of Ambassadors. But unlike the clone Ambassadors of Embassytown, EzRa is very definitely two different people, and however well he/they can mimic Language, the effect is jarring - and, for the Ariekei, utterly intoxicating in a way similar to that of hearing humans speak deliberate untruths is. Soon vast swathes of Ariekei - and of their bioengineered buildings that make up the physical structure of Embassytown - are addicted to hearing EzRa, and getting increasingly violent when they don't get their fix.
The city twitched. It was infected. The Hosts had heard EzRa’s impossible voice, had taken energy from their zelles and let out waste, and in the exchange the chemistry of craving had been passed, and passed on again by the little beasts when they connected to buildings to power light and the business of life. Addiction had gone into the houses, which poor mindless things shook in endless withdrawal. The most afflicted sweated and bled. Their inhabitants rigged them crude ears, to hear EzRa speak, so the walls could get their fix.
Before long, the colonial outpost is under siege, and we're replaying the latter stages of the Raj, 'Indian Mutiny' and Amritsar massacre both.
At the same time as many Ariekei are falling under EzRa's largely unwitting spell (as Avice puts it, EzRa's voices "brought the Hosts to rapture"), they are some for whom speaking similes isn't enough: they want to use metaphor, to drop the 'like' and say simply that X is Y. Some of the humans, predictably, react with alarm; others want to encourage them. Either way, more or less everyone thinks about the situation in relation to humankind, rather than in the Areikei's own framing. Arguably - and perhaps this is Miéville's point - the humans can't do otherwise; just as the Ariekei cannot conceive of, or give voice to, a lie in pre-human Language, so humans cannot conceptualise of a way of seeing the world that does not have themselves at the centre of it. Scile puts it in stark Book-of-Genesis terms:
"Simile spells an argument out: it’s ongoing, explicit, truth-making. You don’t need... logos, they used to call it. Judgement. You don’t need to... to link incommensurables. Unlike if you claim: ‘This is that.’ When it patently is not. That’s what we do. That’s what we call ‘reason’, that exchange, metaphor. That lying. The world becomes a lie. That’s what Surl Teshecher wants. To bring in a lie.” He spoke very calmly. “It wants to usher in evil.”
To Scile and his allies, humanity's presence is corrupting, tempting the Ariekei away from the Edenic simplicity and truth of Language; one man, Valdik, takes to preaching in public about what a loss it would be for the universe if the Ariekei and their Language were to Fall. When Avice confronts Scile about the way he has been stirring up Valdik ("'It's not fair'" to him, she says), Scile retorts with, "'He’s not a fucking child, Avice [...] He decides what he wants'". The Ariekei, though, apparently don't get to decide what they want; Scile has decided for them that they are best left in their prelapsarian paradise. (On the other other hand, how meaningful can any choice the Ariekei make actually be, when the terms of that choice are being entirely or largely determined for them by the colonisers and the culture they are importing? Thorny questions.)
For Avice, meanwhile, the forced evolution of Language is a good thing for the Ariekei, however painful the process: it is a liberation ("Similes are a way out", she says. "A route from reference to signifying [...] We tell the truth best by becoming lies"). The Fall, after all, was a Fall from ignorance into knowledge:
The said was now not-as-it-is. What they spoke now weren’t things or moments anymore but the thoughts of them, pointings-at; meaning no longer a flat facet of essence; signs ripped from what they signed. It took the lie to do that. With that spiral of assertion-abnegation came quiddities, and the Ariekei became themselves. They were worldsick, as meanings yawed. Anything was anything, now. Their minds were sudden merchants: metaphor, like money, equalised the incommensurable. They could be mythologers now: they’d never had monsters, but now the world was all chimeras, each metaphor a splicing. The city’s a heart, I said, and in that a heart and a city were sutured into a third thing, a heartish city, and cities are heart-stained, and hearts are city-stained too.
No wonder it made them sick. They were like new vampires, retaining memories while they sloughed off lives. They’d never be cured. They went quiet one by one, and not because their crisis ended. They were in a new world. It was the world we live in.
Either way, for the humans concerned and thus for the surface narrative, it's all about them. The impact of the colonisers, whether dreadful or uplifting, cannot but be transformative. For the Areikei's side of things, we are left to read from our own experience and assumptions about whether this might be a positive or a negative outcome for the colonised, or whether that's even a valid or useful question to ask. Both of these things are true, and neither: the revolutionary Ariekes Surl-Teshecher declaring, to the shock of his audience, "Before the humans came [...] we didn’t speak", and the Ariekei who tear out their own ear-fans to avoid hearing EzRa - or anything - any longer and thus escape humanity's influence ("that despairing, literally maddening act of revolt"). We cannot access the time and the mindset before the Fall; we can only have them described to us, inadequately and at a remove, in our own language. For better or worse - or both of those things - the Ariekei are forever changed by their colonial encounter. “Language," as one character puts it, "is the continuation of coercion by other means."