The novel takes place on the planet Arieka, a distant outpost of Bremen, a human (or “Terre”)-dominated stellar empire. The Ariekei are non-humanoid aliens with very different physiognomies that breathe a different atmospheric composition, and, most importantly, they have a very literal language that makes their cognition entirely different from other species. In other words, it’s a more likely portrayal of aliens than your typical Star Trek races, and one that takes us back to the linguistic Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that we saw back in Babel-17. The Bremen colony on Arieka is a smallish outpost called Embassytown, whose residents see the Ariekei as strange, somewhat frightening, Hosts.
Avice Benner Cho grows up in Embassytown, but learns that she has a talent for the “immer” that makes interstellar travel possible. She leaves Arieka and gets to see the universe, but she is eventually drawn back home with her linguist husband Scile, who wants to learn more about the Ariekei. We also learn a great deal about the Ambassadors, the only people really capable of communicating with the Ariekei. This requires a pair of twins linked through surgery and training. Avice is friends with Ambassadors named CalVin, but she also witnesses the arrival of a new Ambassador named EzRa, who inadvertently rocks Embassytown to its core.
The ideas are fantastic, as you’d expect with Mieville, but I also had some of my other typical Mieville complaints. The characters are all pretty flat, serving either to forward the plot or convey exposition and/or ideology. Mieville’s plots also all seem to follow the same trajectory: he sets up a society, shows its precariousness, and then tests it with a revolution (I wonder if Mieville is stuck in this revolutionary rut because he’s a Marxist). I would like to see something different from him. The structure of the novel also seems needlessly flashy with a non-linear narrative that serves little purpose (and accordingly gets dropped after about a hundred pages).
So, my verdict seems to follow what I say about most Mieville novels (other than maybe The City & The City). It’s a well-written work with incredible ideas that could have worked better with more character and plot development. Honestly, this might have grabbed me more as a novella that simply established the world – I think such a work could have been a true classic. But, it’s a rare thing in this day and age to see a space opera this original and well-written that captivates mainstream literary circles and makes bestseller lists all over the place. As such, I expect it to do very well in the voting this year.
*I’d argue that The City & The City is actually a science fiction novel rather than a fantasy novel, which makes the 2010 Locus awards look rather silly (The City & The City won Fantasy, while magic-steampunk-Old-West-zombie-gas novel Boneshaker won as “SF”)