John Krissilas / Writer, Thinker, Storyteller
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Friday, July 8, 2011

Summer of Reading #1: "Embassytown" by China Mieville

The Summer of Reading Series is one part commentary and one part analysis. Each post includes both a review of a book that I've recently read and, perhaps more importantly, the positive and negative aspects of the writing and the story within. The goal of this series is to learn lessons that will help make myself, and anyone reading this, a better writer and storyteller! Enjoy...


Embassytown by China Mieville


Embassytown is a stirring and thought-provoking tale that explores the nature and features of language, all set within a weird and disturbing alien world. Unlike many sci-fi narratives, which use a device or character to remove the language challenges that occur when alien species interact (think of the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or interpretation droids like Star Wars' C-3PO), Mieville makes the language gap between species the key element of his story.

First, he creates a conundrum: two co-existing species that live differently and have two opposing understandings of language. By illustrating the alien point-of-view, he's able to explore the elements of our language that we normally take for granted - lies, similes, metaphors, and the ability to separate thought from words from meaning. His alien species, the Ariekei, can express none of these, and must hear two-voices, spoken at the same time and connected to one mind, to gain any meaning from language. After creating the conundrum, he offers a solution: "Ambassadors" who can bridge the gap between human and alien through two-voiced dialogue.

After setting the stage, the author introduces a source of conflict that shakes the very foundation of the solution that he created: an Ambassador who is not like the others, who causes a great affliction among the aliens and permanently destroys the planet's current way of life. Throughout the novel, the human understanding of language begins to influence that of the Ariekei, from the "Festival of Lies" to the complete re-invention of how the aliens view and speak language itself...


Key Positives:
+ Mieville creates an extremely interesting and involving world that helps the story maintain a sense of wonder throughout
+ The story is a fresh take on the "human meets alien" outer space colony convention
+ Mieville also makes excellent use of archetypes in his storytelling!

Key Negatives:
- This novel was a very difficult read: it is very disorienting at the beginning and somewhat confusing throughout, mainly due to the fact that the 1st-person narrator is already familiar with the alien world. Rarely is anything fully-explained, which does not make things easy for the reader.
- There is a huge lack of connection to the characters in the story. The narrator herself feels disconnected and hollow - with too much "narrator" and not enough "character". Characters also seem to move in and out of the story too quickly, without being developed.
- The pacing of the story was slow and plodding at times - despite the interesting premise and the involving world, the book can get very boring!

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