Is it scifi? Speculative fiction? There's not much 'science' to it. But somewhere out in the distant reaches of the universe at some future time is where British author China Mieville chooses to set this piece of largely entertaining make-believe.
Mieville is known to me as the author of "The City & The City," a brilliant fantasy on urban man's adaptive ability to see and "not see" given parts of his environment. As in that book, the characters and issues of "Embassytown" are all too human.
Avice, our heroine, discovers at the end of her childhood that she can "immerse" -- that is, she can tolerate the symptoms of crossing the "immer," the author's word for the deep, conventionally impassable space that separates universes. It means she will leave the provincial, backwards planet of her birth, a mere village among the stars, and visit the fabled places of the universe. Think leaving the farm to see 'Paree.' But she maintains a nostalgia for the old place, called Embassytown, and the early scenes in which we see her dashing about with other ordinary children testing the limits of their freedom like children everywhere struck me as marvelously evocative. When the novel brings Avice back, now a universe-traveler with her sort of husband -- much in this book is "sort of" like life on earth, the legendary home of the human diaspora -- we realize this smalltown world will be the setting of what is in essence a linguistic fable.
Aside from sending its protagonist off and bringing her back to her gossipy, living-is-easy, Peyton Place nowhere land, it's hard to say that anything happens in the first 150 pages or so that could not have been shown to happen in, say, the first fifteen. Aspects of the book's the setting, its pace, the restricted social circle, the gatherings in which little or nothing happens made "Embassytown" appear increasingly like a stand-in for some remote college campus somewhere; a kid of low-wattage utopia poised on the edge of tedium. Except of course, some of your friends are automatons, and the Hosts, as the humans call the indigenous race, appear to be something like giant, fanciful winged insects.
The indigenes, or Ariekei, live in a "biorigged" world where -- in the book's best sentence; one of the most entertaining sentences anywhere in scifi -- "factories were grazing in the fields." Do the Ariekei do this enormously useful rigging? There's no systematic exposition of this or many other out-of-this-world matters, a sleight of hand the author gets away with because Avice, our narrator, is plausibly too familiar with her homeland to feel a need to describe it. The place's human colonists, apparently, live off the produce of farms and factories that grow themselves, and the Hosts receive in turn some human "tech," again never closely specified.
The thinness of this narration suggests the character of our so-so reliable narrator, a little too self-referential in her style and much too satisfied with her shallow existence. Back in Embassytown, Avice -- a cowboy, sailor, rodeo rider type -- appears to have no life of her own apart from "the scene." She is the scene.
The husband, however, is the sincere academic enthusiast. He's the language nut. Because of his interest, we learn that the Ariekei's language -- alone of all the speech systems of sentient beings -- consists entirely of "truth claims." They can't say anything that isn't clearly so.
Maybe this explains the humans' easy life on their planet, since their Hosts' less sophisticated language is whole time-space continuums behind our own and makes them easy to manage. Humans, of course, can lie like a rug.
To keep them happy the human colonists put on regular entertainments, in particular the can't-miss "Festival of Lies" in which people pronounce simple sentences that contradict observed reality and have the Hosts rolling on the floor.
What happens to their world, to their existence, their very "selves," if we teach them to lie? Here's where the scifi depiction of academic theory comes into play. About halfway through, the issue of "lying" emerges as the book's plot, and Embassytown lurches from crisis to crisis as the change in the meaning of "Language" itself changes everything in the Ariekei themselves, their relations to humans, and in consequence the relations among the various teams of human characters, as they are forced to deal with the genie they've unintentionally released from the bottle. The consequences include the determination by many of the Ariekei to exterminate them all.
Lots of brilliant stuff here. Have I mentioned that the Ariekei language requires two voices speaking at once -- which may, or may not, mean they have two heads? The point is never clarified. It does mean that certain humans are "bred" as doubles with a hoped-for empathetic tuning that enables them to speak in perfect synch to the Hosts.
Conceits like this reward the reader. But I'm thinking that inside this loosely-paced novel lies a brilliant novella.