September 4, 2012

Language is power.

Embassytown is Mieville at his best, bringing together believable alien worlds, philosophical intrigue, and damn good storytelling. We follow Avice Benner Cho, a self-described floaker1, as she becomes embroiled in the fragile diplomacy between humans and their native hosts on the planet Arieka. The humans are there to trade for the Ariekei bio-engineering technology–one reads delightful lines like “watching the herds of power plants grazing” or looking out upon “where ripe purses were being harvested”–but what motivates the Ariekei is far more interesting.

Diplomacy on Arieka is complicated by the way that humans and the Ariekei communicate. The Ariekei speak what is called simply “Language,” a kind of original speech–something like Chomsky’s universal grammar or the language of the making from which magic derives its power in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle–a language so enmeshed with the fabric of the universe that it is impossible to speak untruth. The Ariekei speak it with their two mouths simultaneously; each human “Ambassador” who speaks Language is a pair of twins genetically engineered to think and speak as one.

But while the Ariekei cannot speak lies, they delight in the production and use of similes. More than mere linguistic constructs, similes on Arieka are people. Benner Cho herself is one, “the girl who ate what was given her.” During a ritual for this vital purpose, the narrator was given some fruit which she ate without question, and thenceforth the Ariekei were able to express the idea of making do with what one has. “It’s like the girl who ate what was given her,” they remark, and Benner Cho say things like “when hosts spoke me…”. Remember, their language does not accommodate lies and they can refer only to what they’ve seen, so rituals like this serve to expand their expressive capacity. And since similes are actual people, the possibility of a “simile strike” is brought up. This bizarre construction–a way of language itself rebelling–is the kind of intoxicating brilliance for which I love Mieville.

From the beginning this extraordinary situation kept me rapt, but the story takes off when a new Ambassador shows up whose speech has an unexpected effect on the Ariekei, an effect which threatens not only the two species’ fragile peace but the fate of the entire planet.

Given the situation, Embassytown has some insightful commentary on colonialism. While Benner Cho and her superior Wyatt are discussing the true intentions behind stories colonialists tell themselves about making some small gaffe and being set upon by the natives.

“Oh, bullshit,” Wyatt said. I blinked. “This isn’t one of those stories, Avice. One moment of back-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-aggrandizing 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.”

But perhaps, at least on Arieka, that self-aggrandizement is a palliative against the fear of dealing with an imposing, technologically advanced, truly alien species. Historically, our species has difficulty trusting people from other cultures–could anything possibly prepare us to trust another species? But if we find ourselves no longer alone or dominant in the universe, what but trust could be more vital?

  1. Something like a Han Solo character. “This is what I excelled at: the life-technique of aggregated skill, luck, laziness and chutzpah that we call floaking.”