By John Clute
25 April 2011
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blew sand in my face. China Miéville's new novel Embassytown tells us pretty clearly that it is likely to be the first volume of a series, but focuses despite this on some arduous arguments, about the nature of language and sentience, that adhere to, and are properly concluded within, a single telling. Nevertheless, that inward-looking single telling is framed by a large, extremely engaging backstory about the universe-sustaining "immerse" through which voidships forge from star to star, knitting together the far-flung worlds: but this does not keep the tale from sticking very closely to the planet Arieka, where it belongs, and the immerse is pretty well ignored over the course of the landlocked tale Miéville has embarked us upon here. Fittingly, Avice Benner Cho, Miéville's odd but clearly calculated choice of protagonist, tells most of her own story from a sub species eternitatis Wolfeian distance that can best be unpacked centripetally: but then she whutters in the final pages into a pixilated hey-guys! narrative-future-cute that focuses our gaze forward to Sequeltown in a style positively seismo-liquefacted with space opera tropes and teasers:
Immersion's never safe. This far out, at this edge, we're back to the dangerous glory days of homo disapora. I don't have any hesitation. I've gone out, I've come back, and it's time to go again, in directions and for distances no immerser has gone. In kilohours, I might be meeting an exot I'm the first Terre ever to see, working tongueware, trying to make a greeting. I might find anything.
But of course that's not the book we've just read, which is a tale of conceptual breakthrough gained by virtue of an intensely dramatized analysis of a language not remotely our own, an analysis embedded into the story of an extremely long, estranged civil war, which Avice's disjunctive narrative (much of it recounted at second- or third-hand) renders in terms of dégringolade: of an inexorable grinding down of the comity and cohesion of Embassytown into faction and fissure and entropy: everything shot to smithereens or dissolved into the swamp: families, friends, memories, livelihoods, artifacts, edifices, the ingenuity of story, the lay of the land itself. So something is going on here, maybe a lesson. The thrust of the genre conversation of Baroque Space Opera (hence BSO), to which Miéville has elliptically contributed to in earlier books, and the thrust of his hard strong insistent mind making thought move, here tussle together with an effect of dis-ease that seems to me entirely intended: though it is significantly difficult to know which mouth is swallowing which tale.
Maybe we should start at the beginning. Avice Benner Cho is a speakable, and this is her book.
The main narrative of Embassytown is divided into nine parts, preceded by a short prologue marking the arrival on Arieka of a ship out of the immer bearing "an impossible new Ambassador" from—we learn much later—imperial Bremer, whose government deems Arieka to be a colony planet under its sway. There is some infodumping here and elsewhere, but very cunningly laid into the retrospective turns of Avice's narrative, so it is hard to remember (for instance) just when we learn that Ambassadors have always been Terre (i.e. human stock) like Avice, and, like Avice, born and bred on Ariekca itself: we don't find this out in fact until way deep into the book, way past the point Avice (and everyone else) should have noted with shock that an Ambassador had been sent from Bremer: but never mind.
Ambassadors are human dyads, twins or clones or consanguines who have been bred or shaped into their role as double-voiced speakers to the native Ariekans, who are two-voiced. They cannot comprehend language voiced from a single throat: cannot, in fact, understand that emitters of random single-throat noises can be sentient. They can only comprehend two voices uttering simultaneously, in profound harmony, whether or not each voice generates the same sentence. This deep logistic, whereby two voices must mean one thing, is embedded deep in the evolutionary architecture of the species, and has generated in Ariekans an ontological solitude so immiscible that words can have no referents outwards to that there, for the entire bell-jar compass of available utterances is indivisible from the internal unity of the voices speaking: words are the thing that is spoken. There is no gap, no secrecy. Therefore, as they inhabit escape-proof langue and cannot speak parole, the Ariekans cannot lie. They are implacable, without knowing what they are implacable about. (Miéville does not so much scant as encompass with a musclely wave any argument one might wish to make that brains without secrecy—without echo chambers—cannot become conscious: though there are hints that he may feel he has created exactly that in his Ariekans: but Embassytown is not a novel about the nature of civilization if its makers are not civil, which is to say conscious: or it is not primarily that kind of novel.) So they communicate with other species solely through Ambassadors, who are able to mime a two-voiced harmony of being. What will the new Ambassador do to all of this?
But first, a fifty page Proem. Though usually in a distanced voice, Avice describes her early life in Embassytown in passages that sometimes intensely evoke the hugeness of a world any child will experience, if given the world. The multi-limbed Ariekans are described; the modus vivendi between them and offworlders is described, including the procedures necessary for Embassytown to exist in a world whose air is poisonous. Only one event stands aside from this flow: as a girl, Avice is selected by the Ariekans to made into a simile, to become a speakable. She is forced to undergo a narrative experience—she is hurt, kept in darkness, eats—whose nature, with great effort, the Ariekans can utter towards, a diectic outreach from the luminous choral solipsism of their being-in-the-world: they call her "the girl hurt in darkness who ate what was given her." Under that name she is speakable in the illimitable incomprehensible darkness, like some lighthouse giving meaning to an almost perceivable outstretch of world beyond solitude: by speaking her (and others so selected), the Ariekans come as close as possible to the glass ceiling that bars them from saying certain things that are beyond saying in words that are not themselves.
Avice then describes becoming eligible to work as an immerser, for she is one of those beings capable of tolerating the savage dislocations of time and space that define any hyperspace in any story by any author who has read any Cordwainer Smith. The immer is the underlier of this universe and several earlier ones. It is the langue out of which each paroles-universe is shaped. She spends a lot of time out in there, and we become more familiar with the immer than perhaps is entirely wise as far as this volume is concerned, because it is a lot of fun, and because we never return there. After several years earning money and gaining nous, Avice herself stops immersing, comes back home to Arieka, and with a nod to the Prologue the story begins.
The story which now opens is broken into a before and an after.
Before the new Ambassador first speaks to Ariekans: we are introduced, fairly slowly and with considerable cognitive care, to the linguistic arguments which Miéville has been using, here and as already described in the Proem, to make his deeply unusual niche-species seem to work, though we have already begun to suspect that, as with most niche-species in SF, the Ariekans will soon undergo a cognitive breakthrough that blasts open their universe and makes them a lot more like us. Much of this detail work is intriguing, though there are points when one gets the sense that Miéville has a lot of very interesting things to talk about but not quite enough story to talk about them with: not surprising, as Avice by no means inhabits action centre at this point, nor will she for another few hundred pages. And there is indeed a point at which it might be argued that she, the reader, and maybe Miéville himself come simultaneously to a sensation it is risky to articulate in a book. Halfway through a sidebar story that she hardly pretends to try to bring into the half-life of sour memory, she breaks off abruptly from pretending to care about telling us the details of a now-dead liaison between her and an Ambassador dyad, and there is a line break. And she lifts her head straight out of the page and speaks:
I admit defeat [she tells "us": the medium for the transmissal of her book-length confession is never given, but feels written for readers, who are never located in reading-space, though a sentence or two is addressed to an unidentified "you": but I figure "you" has pretty well got to be just "us"]. I've been trying to present these events with a structure. I simply don't know how everything happened. Perhaps because I didn't pay proper attention, perhaps because it wasn't a narrative, but for whatever reasons, it doesn't want to be what I want to make it.
That's life, of course; it is rarely literature. I think Miéville is far too sophisticated a writer not to know he's playing with fire here; oddly perhaps, the passage sharpened my attention, as always when a figure in a book raises its head and stares upwards through the glass ceiling.
After the new Ambassador speaks: The walls fall down. The dyad comprising the new Ambassador is a ringer: two men who are fundamentally disparate but—augmented by a Bremer implant—are capable of speaking Language, as far as the other Ambassadors can detect. Nor is there any doubt that the Ariekans know that something is being spoken to them, and here we come to the heart of the action and the argument. For the Ariekans, an utterance in what seems to be Language, but which has been generated by two disparate minds who share nothing but a linguistic skill, is incompossible with reality: incompossible but deadly tasty. It is a Basilisk that locks them like the gaze of Medusa into an instant, cataclysmic, deadly fixity of addiction. It destroys their minds and they begin to die.
And Embassytown itself commits upon us a body English of dying, too. We plunge into a nightmare of genuine SF horror, a thickening prostration of narrative flow as Arieka swells shut and comity disintegrates, and the animate buildings of Embassytown dissolve into gabble. Avice and her fellow humans toss to and fro in the scum, in a state of entropy Miéville beautifully conveys through a parody of the kind of political novel that tries to capture the essence of some unending civil war through a minute description of committees; it is all unspeakably hilarious, and savage, and sad, for there seems no out, despite remembered hints of BSO-fun in the framing of the tale. Avice leaves little unspoken:
"DalTon [Ambassadors are always double-named: singular and plural at the same time] have their own reasons for everything."
"Which are?" I said.
"Oh there are so many reasons out there," YlSib said, exhaustedly. "Who can keep track of them all." "Pick one." "They aren't your friend." "Won't that do?"
"No." [. . . ]
DalTon was against me, Cal was against me, DalTon was against Cal, Shonas was against DalTon, Shonas was for me but not against Cal, and so on.
And then the thickening of chaos is pricked by a breath of air, and the tale wraps itself up. With huge difficulty—a difficulty we empathize with, as the Ariekans have become intensely vivid by now—a single Ariekan, who had earlier come agonizingly close to telling a lie, begins to free itself of the devouring monad glare of the basilisk voices by understanding that the speakable that comprises Avice can mean egress. With anguish and joy, it says the magic sentence: "We're like the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her because we imbibe what was given to us . . ."
And it breaks the glass.
There is a lot of clatter to vacuum up before the book ends, but the space opera/not space opera whiplashes of Embassytown's telling now come clear in the mind, for this whuttering is the sound of SF past and present struggling to become a single book, the sound of the book learning to break in two and come back, Avice learning to speak, the Ariekans learning to speak, China Miéville learning how to do space opera by staring them down and ravishing it.
Now for a few moments of seeming innocence, the innocence of the teller in the midst of the telling, not a writer at all as it seems, till she looks up from the page. But that is naive, even for a worker who seems open-eyed to the world without calculating the cost, even though we've been told—for the author herself had made this clear in pieces and addresses more than once—that in the making of a story dreamwork and craft were not easily distinguishable for her: that more than most of her fellow authors she wrote like the lucid dreamer, the hypnopomp all readers long to be led by, the teller who lets us come along to drink.
The Monkey's Wedding and Other Stories is a new collection of tales assembled from mostly uncollected early work by Joan Aiken (1924-2004), though a few gnomic world-darkened late stories serve as ballast towards the latter pages of this full volume. But most of the work (assembled here by Lizza Aiken, Joan Aiken's daughter and sometime collaborator) was first laid down at least half century ago. Six stories from around 1960 are published for the first time; they are not easy to distinguish from the magazine work that also appears here, mostly from the 1950s Argosy, tales Aiken never put into any of her 35 collected volumes. It is a joy to recover them now.
Almost all the stories assembled in The Monkey's Wedding—except for the devastating title story itself, from 1996, and "The Fluttering Thing" from 2002, which is set on a journey towards Final Solution; it is even more terrifying than The Scream, also 2002—flow with a porcelain lucidity and gaiety that manifests the high energy of Aiken's early prime, and also because they are not only about Ago, but were written then: deep in the world of England just before the Beeching cuts began to poison the wells of community. The crystal-clear but flowing joie de vivre of the book—eight of the tales included here empolder courtships, most ending in marriages—comprises an epithalamium to wells of doing and saying and living not yet half-dead with drought. Some are fantasy; some are comedic within narrower frames. None seem specifically written for children: but almost nothing she ever wrote barred any reader from entering. A bit like A. E. Coppard or H. E. Bates but immensely faster, Joan Aiken caught and coiled the land of her birth into tales told: tales that fabulated England into a Matter that seemed unkillable.
To read these stories now is to see that something happened.