How to do things with words
‘Texts don’t mean things,” fantasy writer China Mieville once said. “Texts do things.”
Linguistics is the science that forms the starting point for Mieville’s seventh novel, the ostensible “hard SF” Embassytown (Macmillan).
On a one-horse planet at the edge of the known universe, the indigenous two-mouthed Ariekes (“the Hosts”, settlers call them) speak a language with no conceptual split between word, speaker and referent.
Their texts cannot do things and thus the Ariekes cannot lie.
To communicate, the planet’s human settlers have force reared pairs of identical twins—Ambassadors—to utter text (simultaneously and with the necessary conviction) the Hosts at least acknowledge as language. In terms of trade and governance the tactic more or less works, even if no one is entirely certain how. Creating the Ambassadors gives the shabby little colony a degree of status and space to manoeuvre in its relations with the metropolis of Bremen: a situation manipulated through petty power games by the Ambassadors, their staffs and the Bremen representative.
The book’s protagonist, Avice, is an immerser: unlike most residents, she has the mental capacity to navigate the space-time continuum off-planet and, now returned, can apply some detachment to what she sees and does.
The story’s crisis point comes as how the Ariekes hear and use language alters and everything—social life, economy, power, survival—becomes uncertain.
But Embassytown is no more simply a space opera than Mieville’s The City and the City was simply a police procedural. It’s an urban fantasy, rich with the texture of Embassytown‘s human stones as they join in impossible geometries with the bio-engineered Host settlement that surrounds them. Mieville has described his world-building as sitting between the minutely mapped, rule-bound approach found in role-play games and the more subversive, fluid, mutable settings of writers such as M John Harrison. Arieka and its denizens have enough detail to breathe and move, the landscape’s lacunae tantalise rather than frustrate and, as with radio drama, the pictures the text makes the reader paint are better.
A story of war and revolution
Philosophically, the book is an exploration of the complexities (and resolutions) of difference—not only between humans and the Hosts but also between individual humans themselves, played out through the tropes of gender relations, power and ideology, and given analogy in the planet’s construct of twinned Ambassadors. And it’s a story of war and revolution, among both humans and the Hosts, sufficiently action driven to wear the space-opera label. Avice’s off-world scholar husband Scile—like an apartheid-era professor policing isiZulu—is obsessed by his quest for the true, unchanging, meaning of the Hosts’ language, but the book constantly signifies on change.
It’s also a brilliantly gifted writer’s love affair with the power of language and so is equally other than—and none of—these.
As in The City and the City, the form itself is used metaphorically. “A metaphor,” says Mieville, “fractures and kicks off more metaphors — In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas and riffs that throw out these other ideas [deliberately or not]. But the point is, those riffs don’t reduce — or foreclose it.”
The uncorrected publisher’s proof of Embassytown I received was accompanied by some scary, execrably written PR material blaring a relaunch of all Mieville’s books in new livery and a marketing campaign to “truly launch China into the mainstream”. One hopes this doesn’t meant they’ll get him writing about child wizards or vampires next.
Weapons of mass destruction
Yet the vampire metaphor doesn’t have to be a straitjacket either, as Jon Courtenay Grimwood demonstrates in The Fallen Blade (Act One of the Assassini) (Orbit). A long-lived, impossibly beautiful, blood-drinking boy turns up in a fantasised 15th- century Venice, where aristos and diplomats plot and poison, and werewolves are already weapons of mass destruction. Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy demonstrated both his fascination and deftness in dealing with mutable human identity. Here, he has told SF websites, he is “reclaiming” the vampire. Among the myths he sets out to destroy, he says, are that “vampires are emo. I’ve nothing against emos—someone has to sit around war memorials taking bad drugs and drinking cider—but vampires aren’t wandering the night because they’re heartbroken or couldn’t get tickets to the right gig. They own the bloody night.”
KJ Parker’s third standalone novel, The Hammer (Orbit), deals, like Embassytown, with settlers and indigenes navigating tricky colonial relations. For Mieville’s Hosts, the settlers are silent because single voices uttering metaphors cannot actually be speaking. For Parker’s natives, the settlers are just a bad dream, a temporary illusion. Gignomai met’Oc (“Gig”), the son of rebel aristocrats long exiled to a useless island colony, leads a movement to undermine metropolitan rule.
Only slowly does it emerge just how messed up Gig is, and how tightly imprisoned by his inherited terrors and prejudices. Just as the giant forging hammer he builds presses out identical consumer goods, so the hammer of his family beats him into a mould he finds very hard to escape.
The book has the author’s expected mordant wit, casual cruelty and supremely skilled wordsmithing. Unusually, it also offers the closest thing to a happy ending we’ve seen yet. By the end, democracy, dogged survival and even love find tiny crevices from which to send out green shoots.
If Mieville’s novel deals with the seductive lure of alien language, Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes (Gollancz) examines that of war. That’s the fresh, striking element in this book, set in the world of his First Law trilogy. Abercrombie has detailed before how puppet masters need war for power and profit. Now he turns to those professional soldiers for whom it’s the only space where they can be somebody.
The Heroes are not fighters, although many soldiers on both sides, living and dead, get decorated with that title. They are a ruined set of standing stones around which pointless, bloody, tragicomic battles (with detailed accounts of strategy that will fascinate readers of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz) are fought. In this tale of every killing field from Agincourt and the Somme to Fallujah, the Heroes, like Arieka, are both site and metaphor.