Embassytown is a stand-alone science fiction novel by China Miéville. The story follows the first-person narrative of Avice, a woman living in the titular Embassytown on a planet populated by a sentient species humanity refers to as the Hosts. The Hosts speak by saying two distinct things at the same time (which humans are physically unable to do), and so humanity develops Ambassadors—two people able to speak as one—in order to communicate with them. The Hosts are continually working to expand their language, and so when Avice is a child, she is chosen to become a simile—a literal part of the way Hosts communicate. When she is older, this results in her becoming an integral part of a linguistic revolution that alters the Hosts’ culture forever.
A stunningly original premise
Embassytown presents one of the most original premises I’ve ever encountered in literature. It plays off of this idea: as a result of the way their language works, the Hosts are unable to speak or even think something that is not true—until humanity introduces the concept of lying into their culture. The novel revolves around the idea of how language can be corrupted and manipulated, and how it can ultimately alter the essence of an entire culture. Unfortunately, this premise really is the novel’s greatest strength; in the actual execution of the plot, Miéville tries to create more story than there really is, which results in extremely haphazard pacing. In fact, the concept behind Embassytown would likely have worked beautifully as a short story; as a novel, however, there simply isn’t enough material to justify its length.
A thin plot
The entire first half of Embassytown is purely explanation, backstory, and gradual worldbuilding as Miéville unveils his unique setting to the reader. It’s very smoothly told; Miéville skillfully lets information about his world trickle out so the reader is always learning something new and is continually in the process of piecing together the disparate elements they are given. However, this is also a very passive section of the book, and I expect many readers will struggle to stay engaged due to its lack of action and momentum. The story doesn’t actually start pushing forward until about halfway through the book and the pace subsequently picks up quite a bit after that, but even then there isn’t a great deal of substance to the plot. Embassytown is more idea-driven than event-driven, so don’t expect much in terms of plot.
The characters in Embassytown are almost completely devoid of personality. They populate the novel for the sole purpose of advancing the plot, and none of them warrant or earn emotional attachment. Even Avice, who narrates the novel from a first-person point of view, keeps herself as closed off from the reader as the other characters and never lets her personality show through. By the end of the novel, you still don’t really know who Avice is as a person. This really isn’t a huge issue in the novel because the story is focused more on exploring the concept and corruption of language rather than the arcs of individual characters, but this is something to note if you prefer stories that are more character-driven.
Why should you read this book?
Despite uninteresting characters, a thin plot, and a first half that consists of nothing more than explanation, backstory, and worldbuilding, Embassytown does have one of the most fascinating story concepts I’ve ever encountered in a book. For me, at least, that alone made it worth reading.
There’s an audience out there who will enjoy this book; however, I don’t believe that audience is very large. There are a few general guidelines that will help determine if you might like Embassytown. First: If you’ve enjoyed Miéville’s other works, you’ll likely enjoy Embassytown. Second: If you’re interested in the concepts behind language and communication, you’ll likely enjoy this book. Finally: If you’re a fan of science fiction in general, you’ll likely enjoy this book to some extent, although it will probably vary significantly from person to person. If none of these categories describe you, you might not want to bother with Embassytown.