Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collage

[Note: this is the latest (and so far longest) entry in a loose series of critical looks at some SF novels, preceded by Evil and Mortality in Philip Palmer’s Version 43 and Artemis, and Shall I tell you the Problem with Adam Roberts?]

Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collage

Introduction, or, Fit the First

I have been struggling to come to terms with Embassytown, the latest novel by that most photogenic of genre writers, SF and fantasy’s Marxist Prince of Tides. I have been searching for a single argument, a coherent framework with which to argue the novel, yet had been unable to. How, then, to articulate what I found so confounding, so irritating at times, about this big, well-received novel?

It occurred to me at last that my failure to discuss the novel was exactly for those terms. I was seeking a single line of questioning, a way of viewing Embassytown as a solitary edifice when, in fact, it is not that thing at all. (It is a thing which is like another thing yet it is not that thing, to take a metaphorical page from Embassytown itself).

It seems to me a far better way of viewing Embassytown is as a collage – “a work of formal art, primarily in the visual arts, made from an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole,” to quote that most democratic of encyclopaedias, the student essay haven that is Wikipedia. I’d argue that, contrary to appearances, Embassytown is far from a unified argument; rather it is a patchwork tale, its moving parts themselves parts of other works, thus creating a post-modernist novel, one that borrows upon, and freely and ironically incorporates, various and sometimes conflicting narratives.

It is a paradoxical novel in several respects, most prominently, it feels to me, in the way it attempts to subvert – and yet becomes subjugated by – narratives of colonialism. It is also fascinating to examine it in view of the shift in Mieville’s methodology over the course of his career to date. Let us, then, pick an approach almost at random…

1. Post-Modernity and the Novel

One of the things I noticed almost immediately about the novel – indeed, one of the core causes of initial confusion in my approach to critically reading it, is how it borrows, both covertly and overtly, a range of textual approaches to different parts of itself.

It begins. And almost immediately we recognise the framework we are in, for it is one acknowledging and paying homage to the works of Samuel Delany, and in particular to Nova (1968) and Babel-17 (1966).

Let us refer to this first section as the Immer Section.

The Immer is a hyperspace “ocean”, in which Immersers travel in ships. That “space is an ocean” gets its own TV Trope entry (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SpaceIsAnOcean) is unsurprising, but suggestive I think. For all that Embassytown is presented very specifically – by marketing and PR people, and various readers/bloggers – as science fiction, it can easily be read in terms of fantasy: the immer as a literal ocean, Embassytown a colony on the edge of a foreign continent. This is suggestive of the fluidity of genre found in all of Mieville’s work – Perdido Street Station (2000), which is presented as fantasy, can nevertheless be read in pure science fictional terms (and has indeed won the Clarke Award for science fiction).

But to the Immer. Our heroine, Avice Benner Cho – and notice that non-Anglo surname, for it is pretty much the only such you will see in this novel, and we will discuss names in much more detail in a moment – well then, our heroine, Avice Benner Cho, child of Embassytown (a remote colony on an alien world), grows up and becomes, to some extent, the Mouse, one premier point-of-view character from Nova who is, to again lazily quote Wikipedia: “Pontichos Provechi, a young Gypsy from Earth, who, by age 18, has led an extremely varied life, and is just beginning to work in a starship navigation crew.”

Avice goes off into space and, for a time, we think we’re reading a Delany novel. Avice travels around; meets and falls in love with a man, whom she marries; and at last she had her partner, a linguist, return to Embassytown.

And cut. And end part one of the collage, and a transition into another narrative altogether – Nova abandoned, its mysteries unrevealed, Delany let loose as we open the fan that is Embassytown further.

And suddenly we find ourselves in a little mystery. It is, almost, a Cozy Mystery, in which “the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community,” where “The detectives in such stories are nearly always amateurs.” Wikipedia again, I’m afraid. But you get the gist, if not the authority of a weightier text.

The mystery in this case is the arrival of the new Ambassador – the nature of Ambassadors, with their curiously capitalised As – the nature of Avice’s being a Simile to the strange aliens who populate this planet, called the Ariekei – and the nature of Language, that strange, artificial construct of a Novum that is both the heart and the heart sickness of this novel. But we will discuss novums and their nature (do they, like a Snark, always look grave at a pun, for instance? Such questions keep us up late at night). Awaiting the arrival of the new Ambassador, we slowly find out that Ambassadors are conjoined twins, two humans melded together by drugs and training into thinking and acting as one  – since Language, it turns out, can only be spoken by two mouths, the Cut and the Turn. The Ambassadors all have names like MagDa and CalVin – the double capitalization suggesting the two individuals comprising that single Ambassador.


It is both Cozy Mystery and classic Science Fiction, a way of Learning the World – or, more accurately, perhaps, a way of Teaching Us The World (and please take notes, you at the back!).

Anyhow. The Ambassador arrives and we promptly exist this stage of the proceedings and progress on to…

A zombie movie?


If you’re in any doubt as to the validity of such a statement, here is the author giving us an explicit wink:

Artists plumbed our archives, digital archaeology, back millions of hours, to the antediasporan age. They pulled up corroded ancient fictions to screen.

“These ones are Georgian or Roman, I gather,” one organiser told me. “They talk early Anglo, though.” Men and women bled of colour, in clumsy symbolism, fortified in a house and fighting grossly sick figures. Colour came back, and protagonists were in an edifice full of products, and sicker enemies than before relentlessly came for them. We read the story as ours, of course. (p. 255)

Mieville is, of course, making a reference here to the George Romero film Dawn of the Dead (1978), in which a group of survivors in the midst of a zombie apocalypse find shelter in a shopping mall. This section progresses in its zombie movie idiom, yet it is not merely a zombie movie narrative. It is, in fact, closer to the curious Canadian production of Pontypool (2009), a zombie movie which deals explicitly with language – particularly, the theme of language as a virus – and which itself builds on, and explicitly references, the Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash (1992).

The Language spoken by the new Ambassador, EzRa (I do wonder, by the way, how this novel will be translated into a language that doesn’t use capital letters. It is rather Capitals Intensive), proves to be wrong, somehow. It is, in fact, addictive (thankfully not Addictive!), and causes the previously calm aliens to turn into crazed junkies of Language. I have seen one person on Twitter – making the jump directly from Mieville’s first novel, King Rat (1998) to the present one – make the reference to London’s 1990s rave scene, which seemed to me quite astute (it is, of course, the subject of much of King Rat’s narrative). And so the zombie-junkies of language – which is, we must admit and admire, a rather fun concept – engage in a war with our small plucky band of human survivors, until, at long last, we reach the end, in which things are more or less put right.

Read in this fashion, then, Embassytown is a post-modernist collage: it incorporates explicit references and homage to varying and contrasting genres and works, stacking them one after the other while telling an overall story within that disparate framework. As such it is quite a fascinating exercise – though it is worth noting we are merely engaged, at the moment, in describing the structure of the novel, its form of narratology. It may explain some of the difficulty in engaging critically with the novel but, once we’ve done this, we should, perhaps, turn our attention to more pressing matters – though we will begin gently.

Also, yes, we like using commas. So sue us.

2. Hunting the Novum, Or The Exuberance of China Mieville

The third is its slowness in taking a jest.

Should you happen to venture on one,

It will sigh like a thing that is deeply distressed:

And it always looks grave at a pun.

– Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark (1876)

I have mentioned earlier the need to examine Embassytown “in view of the shift in Mieville’s methodology over the course of his career to date.” (yes, I just quoted myself!)

What do we (I) mean by that?

In order to understand this shift – or what it may mean – we need to examine that most pernicious, the most weed-like, of all of science fiction’s egotistical, kamikaze-like attacks on literature. In that I am referring, of course, to the Novum, or “New Thing” (that thing which is like another thing but is not that thing?), a term coined by Darko Suvin to describe the superiority-I-mean-unique-snow-flake-I-mean-oh-whatever! of science fiction.

One of the things, indeed, one admires most about Mieville’s work is its almost casual contempt for the Novum – that central, science fiction idea that drives the traditional SF narrative. Mieville’s Perdido Street Station is magnificent in part for what I can only term its exuberance of novums. It is chockfull of ideas, casually tossed into the melange – anything from steampunk robots, Lovecraftian monsters, mad scientists, a transdimensional giant spider and the ambassador of Hell all happily comingling. I have heard the term “kitchen sink” applied time and time again as a sort of derogative term (“anything but the kitchen sink”), which I find ludicrous. To me the idea of the single Novum is the offensive one. Novums, I would argue, are decorations, they are the tapestry and background scenery of science fiction, but in order for SF to also be literature it must never treat the novum as central. I realise this is a controversial position in some quarters, to which I say – pffff! and raise two metaphorical fingers in an age-old salute.


Mieville’s exuberance continued with The Scar (2002) and Iron Council (2004) – concluding the Bas-Lag trilogy began with Perdido Street Station – continued, with different affect, in Un Lun Dun (2007) and concluded, at last, with 2010’s Kraken.

It is with his The City and the City (2009) that Mieville changes direction. We may think of it as the dimming of exuberance, or the point where Mieville abandons the novum-as-decoration and begins to treat it as central.

In The City and the City, it works.

It works, in fact, tremendously well. Here, Mieville takes a central novum to create a sustained, measured, superbly controlled novel emerging entirely out of the one central idea. That he achieves this – technically tremendously difficult – novel, is the high point in Mieville’s career and his claim to literary standing.

My feeling – to bring the discussion back once more to its main thrust – is that this does not happen quite as successfully in Embassytown. I find the central novum – the aliens and their Language – overwhelmingly artificial. Of course, the central conceit of The City and the City is equally artificial, and yet it manages to say something profound about our way of Seeing the World. What does Embassytown represent, however? Our way of Speaking The World?

Perhaps. Yet it does not seem to me to produce a coherent argument, for all that it borrows on some interesting linguistic theory. Perhaps it lacks the poetry required to discuss language in an SF context, which is something Delany, decades earlier, appears to me to be doing with more elegance (and certainly fewer words!). Where a discussion of language must, by its very nature, be like a poem, compressed and brilliant, Embassytown plods through page after page, genre after genre, in search of an argument it never quite finds. That this statement might appear controversial to those who loved the novel, and found within it, as one correspondent memorably put it, a “linguistic orgasm”, suggests perhaps less that I am wrong, and more than the people who study linguistic theory could do with reading a decent poetry anthology every so often. Yet, for better or worse, Embassytown is not a poem; it is a novel; or at least it exhibits some of the characteristics of one. And we must accept it on those terms.

3. Let’s Talk About Names, Baby (And, Also, Colonialism)

Names. I’m obsessed with names in fiction. Names are so important. They tell us so much about the characters; their background; their cultural history; their baggage.

What, then, are we to make of the world of Embassytown?

Remember, we mentioned Avice Benner Cho. Such an interesting name. Avice – from Old German Avis. In Latin, Avis means bird. Very well. Benner. From South German, Basket Maker. Finally: Cho. A Korean family name, similar to the Chinese Zhao, which is represented by the same character, and was the name of a feudal state during the Zhou dynasty.

What are we to make of that?

The problem is not really with Avice Benner Cho. It is that Cho is pretty much the only hint of a non-Anglo culture in the novel. Yes, Mieville makes a passing reference to Embassytown having synagogues and mosques: “There were other congregations: tiny synagogues; temples; mosques; churches, mustering a few score regulars.” (p. 144). The dominant religion is Christianity-based, with references to Jesus Christ – modified somewhat, of course, but still there. Christ Pharotekton. Maker of Lighthouses (which, in the novel, were artificial structures created, for unknown reasons, within the Immer – the hyperspace ocean of the first part of the novel).

And then there are… everyone else.Let’s take EzRa. An interesting creation. Ezra, from the Hebrew עזרא, Ezra the Author (Ezra Ha’sofer) was a Jewish leader in the Second Temple period. An apt name for the Ambassador whose literal words act as a drug to rewrite the consciousness of the Ariekei. Or MagDa. Magda, short for Magdalena, meaning of the town of Migdal, and referring to Miriam of Migdal, or Maria Magdalene.

Or take CalVin. Jean Calvin was a French pastor during the Reformation; Calvinism is named after him. Here, incidentally, is the entry on him from the Bislama version of Wikipedia:


Hem i bin bon long 10 Julae 1509, long Franis. Hem i stadi long Paris blong hem i kam wan pris. Hem i bin wan bigfala lida long ol muvmen blong mekemgud Katolik Jos. Hem i bin laef plante taem blong laef blong hem long Switzerland. Hem i bin tijim se man nomo oli nating mo sore blong God nomo i save sevem olgeta. Hem i bin raetem plante tingting blong hem long saed blong Baebol. Hem i bin ded long 27 Mei 1564.

It is a curious turn of fate that, of the three languages I speak, Bislama, a form of English pidgin spoken in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, is one. It is beautifully elegant. Hem i bin tijim se man nomo oli nating mo sore blong God nomo i save sevem olgeta. He taught that man must repent before God to be saved.

What do we learn from this? It is inarguable that Embassytown is a novel preoccupied with themes of colonialism. The very nature of a pidgin is to act as a contact language between two or more different groups of people. Bislama represents both a colonial product, and a post-colonial reaction (as do the so-called “cargo cults”, which need to be viewed as a reaction to colonial oppression). Language (Mieville’s capital-L Language) is, similarly, the battlefield of colonialism, in which the humans first corrupt, and then convert, the native aliens to their way of Speaking the World. But this is not really my concern, for all that much had been made of that elsewhere.

What disappoints me – that vague sense of unease at the back of my neck, whispering as I read – is that Mieville, like so many Western SF writers before him, has made the implicit decision that the future belongs to today’s dominant culture. Embassytown’s future is Western; it is Anglo; it is, by definition, White. There are Jews in Embassytown, we’re told. But they’re a minority. There are Asians – witness Cho – but they are a minority. Humanity Uber Alles goes to the star, with its Germanic names and Christian-derived names, there to once again perpetuate the great European Colonial Project.

Of course, Mieville is too smart a writer to fall into such a trap. Isn’t he? Is he, perhaps, saying something profound about our cultural assumptions? Is he gently mocking the great American tradition of SF, its Campbellian (in the John, not Joseph, sense of the word) sense of Jews Need Not Applied (as recounted by Isaac Asimov in his memories of John W. Campbell, Jr., within his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green (1979) and elsewhere)?

If he is, it does not seem to me effective. Embassytown is yet another Anglos in Space novel, the base default assumption of the vast majority of English-language (and not a little of other languages, too) science fiction. It occurs to me Mieville has had the opportunity to do something interesting with Embassytown; to examine the interaction with his fictional aliens by humans not speaking English, whose cultural assumptions may be different to the ones his characters end up exhibiting. It would have been a challenging book indeed – perhaps too much, for a beast already as cumbersome – and also challenging, conflicted and experimental – as Embassytown.

Yet it is a niggling feeling; it is a sense of regret, and of puzzlement, that afflicts the non-Anglo reader when coming upon Embassytown. Of missed opportunities, of tired acceptance of the sign that says, This Is Not Your Future.

There are other issues of colonialism at play here, of course. The very ending of the novel, its faux-resolution depends on some acceptance of – and some subversion of – colonialism within the framework of the novel, in which Embassytown is itself a colony of a larger power, and is attempting to become an independent entity. But it is of less interest to me, somehow, for the tinge of disappointment has already touched and been subsumed within.

Conclusion, of Sort, or Fit The Last

What, then, are we to make of Embassytown, a novel that, within the past 3,000 words of this rather cumbersome review, we have hardly scratched the leathery surface of? It is challenging – frustrating – ambitious – like this review it is, too, rather cumbersome.

That it is a novel about language – about Speaking the World – we can, perhaps, agree. That it makes much of similes, and metaphors, there is no doubt. One is tempted to cynically sum up Embassytown’s approach simply with the statement that A metaphor is a 3G simile, which has the benefit of fitting in a single tweet, if nothing else. The frustration one feels on reading Embassytown is equivalent only, in Mieville’s oeuvre, to the resolution of Un Lun Dun with, literally, a gun. In both instances one is let down only by one’s incredibly high expectations. Mieville is, quite frankly, the most significant – one of the only significant – writers engaged with that thing like a thing which is not a thing that is modern-day SF. To add a note of cautious damning, and to ensure making myself dreadfully unpopular in the process, it is a field characterised by a moribund sort of mediocrity, a fortress of a strange sort of Pulp Privilege, an isolationist village which then cries most dreadfully when it is not taken seriously.

Mieville is to be taken seriously. He has created one genuine masterpiece, The City and the City, and several works of importance, chief amongst them Perdido Street Station, which represented nothing less than a paradigm-shift in commercial fantasy fiction but – like Neuromancer in its turn – could not turn its numerous imitators into anything but moderately talented hacks.

Embassytown is, without a doubt, one of the most challenging and ambitious genre novels of the past year. That in itself is, perhaps, a comment on the state of SF/F today, but one, perhaps, best suited for another, rainy day. But still – thatEmbassytown is overwhelmed by its own ambition, that it is cumbersome where it should be light, didactic where it should be poetic, and self-indulgent where it should be trimmed, does not detract from its overall effect, which is considerable.


6 thoughts on “Embassytown considered as a post-modernist collage

  1. Hi Lavie.

    I was extremely curious as to what you would say, ever since you tweeted you were going to tackle it.

    My review of Embassytown feels ramshackle and simplistic in its criticisms and observations by comparison to yours.

  2. Good review!

    I understand where you’re coming from with the comment that like ‘Western SF writers before him, has made the implicit decision that the future belongs to today’s dominant culture’ but don’t you think that’s because he is a white western male? If he attempted to write about an advanced African civilisation, for example, then pretty soon all those angry internet voices would be shouting in outrage about how a privileged white sf male attempted to write a speculative future of todays downtrodden black culture that he knows nothing about etc etc. People write most convincingly from their own reference points for the main part and I don’t think there’s anything too strange or sinister about that.

    He can write pretty convincing weird alien cultures though…

  3. Wow – I have a very different take on what you call “novum-as-decoration” in earlier works like The Scar. For me, they are hugely important; I *enjoy* focusing on them. They certainly loom large in my recollection of the books – cactacae, vodyanoi et al. I am waiting for the mooted (but possibly unpublishable) Miéville Book of Monsters.

  4. The world of Embassytown read to me like a study of colonialism and colonial decadence, in a way which reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s world Sainte Croix in “The fifth head of Cerberus”. The preponderance of Anglo names amongst the colonists would seem to be an intentional part of that.

    I agree with your observation that the novel is like a collage. It verges on being, like Wolfe’s work, a series of linked novellas rather than one novel.

    Liked your “dimming of exuberence” theory and I did enjoy the Novum soup of earlier Miéville novels, but only 2 novels in it remains to be seen if this is a long term trend or if there will be a resurgence of exuberence.

  5. Pingback: China Mieville does hard SF: EMBASSYTOWN « Requires Only That You Hate

  6. That wasn’t the only niggle. [SPOILER ALERT] The other niggle was that at the very end, Cho is quite happy for the now “civilised” Ariekene and the friendly settlers to become an outpost from which they could go exploring the rest of the universe (possibly even for/in alliance with Bremen). Given Mieville’s politics, the only way I can explain this is by saying that he is actually doing something very subversive by playing everything out from the perspective of “nice” or liberal settler colonists, and that in fact, what we have here is NOT the end of settler colonialism, but the start of the new colonial project that starts after early settler colonialism is made a victim of independence (i.e. the US).

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