Monsters You Pay to See

Sam Thompson

  • Embassytown by China Miéville
    Macmillan, 490 pp, £17.99, April 2011, ISBN 978 0 230 75076 0

Embassytown features the following: intelligent horse-sized insectoid aliens, faster-than-light propulsion, androids, organic technology (‘biorigging’), warpspace (‘the immer’), clones, advanced bionics, nanotech notepaper, flying microcameras (‘vespcams’), people with futuristically well-adjusted sexualities, projected holographic adverts (‘trids’), a diasporic human race spread across galaxies and tracing its roots back to the mythical home planet of Terre, a pan-galactic language closely resembling English (‘Anglo-Ubiq’), space-adapted monotheism (‘Christ Pharotekton’) and artificial intelligences (‘artminds’) made seemingly sentient with ‘turingware’. In themselves all these elements will be familiar, almost liturgical, to anyone versed in science fiction, but for China Miéville the tradition’s tropes are the keyboard, not the performance.

Embassytown is a tiny, isolated human settlement, on a remote planet at the fringe of a spacefaring empire, that goes for years between relief missions and survives on the sufferance of the planet’s other inhabitants, an inscrutable alien race known as the Hosts. Avice, the human narrator, is a native of Embassytown who grew up desperate to escape her backwater home but, having travelled the galaxy, returns as a favour to her husband, Scile, a linguist fascinated by the unique language the Hosts speak. Each Host has two mouths, so that its speech is a duet between two voices, but this is almost incidental beside the aliens’ main oddity: instead of the human system of signs yoked arbitrarily to referents, the Hosts’ language is ‘a direct function of their consciousness’, which somehow involves an inherent bond between each word and the thing it represents. In effect, they speak the prelapsarian language of Adam, in which words are numinous with meaning and the world is named without ambiguity. The aliens, walking contradictions of every theory of language, are perfectly literal-minded and incapable of lying.

‘Does it ever occur to you that this language is impossible, Avice?’ Scile asks. ‘They don’t have polysemy. Words don’t signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language? How do their numbers work? It makes no sense.’ He’s right. The alien language, which is the novel’s driving conceit, is plainly impossible, which is the point: like H.G. Wells in The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau, Miéville takes an impossible proposition and works through its implications with rigour. At some moments the novel resembles a thought-experiment in semiotics, except that it’s at least as interested in the tangential oddities its premise entails: because the Hosts can’t lie, they can’t use metaphors, and their limited lexicon of figurative language consists of laborious similes that must be manufactured in reality before they can be spoken. They can say ‘I’m like the rock that was broken and cemented together’ only because the relevant boulder physically exists. The Hosts occasionally call on their human guests to perform this sort of semiotic duty, and as a child Avice is invited to become a simile, submitting to a mysterious and unpleasant experience in a disused restaurant so that the Hosts will henceforth be able to say: ‘We’re like the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her.’

The impossible language has consequences for the politics of Embassytown too. The aliens can’t understand normal human speech, or even grasp that individual humans are conscious, because for them consciousness is language, which requires two mouths speaking with a single mind. Inter-species communication can therefore only take place through human Ambassadors, cloned pairs of doppelgängers bred, trained and neuro-synchronised so that two bodies can effectively share one mind and speak together. Since they control all traffic with the Hosts, the Ambassadors are Embassytown’s ruling caste.

The Ambassadors, as living translation machines, and Avice, as a human figure of speech, are ‘language in flesh’, as she puts it – and the phrase corresponds to one of Miéville’s recurring themes. In a novel he wrote for children in 2007, Un Lun Dun, a despotic entity called Mr Speaker turns language into flesh in a literal sense: when he talks each word takes animate form as a weird creature dropping from his mouth. The word ‘jealous’ manifests as a ‘beautiful iridescent bat’, ‘soliloquy’ is a ‘long-necked sinuous quadruped’, ‘cartography’ a ‘thing like a bowler hat with several spidery legs and a fox’s tail’. These ‘utterlings’ are obedient slaves, existing to do their creator’s will. Like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, Mr Speaker thinks that when it comes to words, the only important question is ‘which is to be master’: he has none of Alice’s doubts about ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’. Miéville’s modern Alice is a pre-teen Londoner called Deeba, who, when she encounters Mr Speaker on her journey through the looking-glass city of UnLondon, delights him with fresh vocabulary like ‘bling’, ‘lairy’ and ‘diss’, spawning new kinds of word-critter. But when Mr Speaker orders his words to take her prisoner, she turns the tables by pointing out the flaw in his theory of language. ‘Words don’t always mean what we want them to,’ she says. ‘Like … if someone shouts, “Hey, you!” at someone in the street, but someone else turns around. The words misbehaved.’ Deeba’s subversive logic shows the utterlings that they don’t have to obey Mr Speaker after all, and she escapes as the tyrant is overwhelmed by his own mutinous verbiage.

Earlier this year John Mullan wrote an article proposing that the essential difference between ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’ is that only ‘literary’ novels ‘ask us to attend to the manner of their telling’. The implication is that genre fiction with ambitions – that uses complex narrative structures such as multiple voices, twisted chronologies or stories within stories – seeks not to be genre fiction at all. Mullan’s two-tier hierarchy doesn’t hold up, however, when confronted with Miéville’s fiction, which has no intention of escaping genre. Embassytown is an SF novel through and through, unironically committed to its own narrative, and serious, like a no-nonsense B-movie, about providing the discerning genre fan with the monsters she’s paid to see. There’s no reason this should preclude an interest in the manner of a story’s telling. And the genre of ‘the weird’ is itself a sustained formal strategy. By asking us constantly to imagine surreal transformations, bizarre bodies and impossible architectures, Miéville confronts us, sentence by sentence, with the spectacle of language representing what can’t exist. Far from inviting the lazy genre reader to sink, unreflecting, into the tale, ‘the weird’ insists we pay attention to the unbridgeable distance between words and what they stand for. In Embassytown, for example, we learn about the nomadic lives of space-navigators like Avice:

Had I ship-hopped in other directions, I could have gone to regions of immer and everyday where Bremen was the fable. People get lost in the overlapping sets of knownspace. Those who serve on exot vessels, who learn to withstand the strange strains of their propulsion – of swallowdrives, overlight foldings, bansheetech – go even farther with less predictable trajectories, and become even more lost. It’s been this way for megahours, since women and men found the immer and we became Homo diaspora.

This is a deeply geeky paragraph, with its flurry of SF idiom and the challenge of parsing the impossibilities of swallowdrive and overlight folding (terms that are left hanging, mentioned nowhere else in the novel). Or, to put it another way, it’s a paragraph that puzzles with form by pressing words into unusual duties, making them reach for unreal referents and watching them grow gnarled in the attempt. It’s difficult to imagine a passage more immersed in the manner of its telling.

At the beginning of Embassytown, the humans and the Hosts coexist in peaceful mutual incomprehension, fenced off by their radically incompatible forms of language and mediated only by the Ambassadors. But the balance is upset when the humans experiment with a new, more direct means of translation, and it becomes clear that ordinary language is dangerous to the aliens. Certain kinds of human speech affect them like a lethally addictive drug, and the Hosts rapidly become a race of language-junkies at the mercy of the interlopers who control their supply. Their society collapses in violence and surrealistic degradation (the biorigged alien architecture sprouts ears in its need to hear the drug-language); then, as the addicts begin to fight back, the outpost finds itself under siege by a planet full of suddenly hostile xenomorphs. But the exposure to human words cannot be undone, and for the Hosts human beings are serpents in a semantic Eden, bringing about a Fall into figurative language. In the aftermath, Avice reflects on the Hosts’ transformation: ‘They could be mythologers now: they’d never had monsters, but now the world was all chimeras, each metaphor a splicing. The city’s a heart, I said, and in that a heart and a city were sutured into a third thing, a heartish city, and cities are heart-stained, and hearts are city-stained too.’ The Hosts have discovered that their prelapsarian speech really was impossible, and that for language to be feasible at all it must say things that aren’t true, or rather must breed hybrids of what is and what isn’t: language is metaphor, and metaphors are monsters.

Avice, who once wanted only to escape her hometown, finds herself entangled in its destiny. ‘Politics finds you,’ she says. Miéville, a leftist activist, seems both optimistic and cautious about the interactions between fiction and politics. He has written (in Historical Materialism) that it would be ‘ridiculous’ to suggest ‘that fantastic fiction gives a clear view of political possibilities or acts as a guide to political action,’ but insists nevertheless that weird fantasy has an inbuilt potential for radical political thinking, because it begins by throwing out standard definitions of what’s possible and what isn’t. Embassytown’s preoccupation with monsters and metaphors keeps reminding us not only that everyday reality is sustained by language, but that language is a kind of fantasy fiction, always confabulating a world that doesn’t otherwise exist. Not taking ‘the real’ for granted means noticing that the real is a story you’re being told.

It also means noticing that entirely different stories are possible. Miéville’s human characters often find themselves confronting beings so bizarre that we can’t begin to grasp their motives. In The Scar, for instance, the fantastical metropolis of New Crobuzon is threatened with invasion by Lovecraftian horrors called grindylow, ‘aquatic daemons or monsters or degenerate crossbred men and women, depending on which story one believed’. They are utterly alien, as a traveller who has visited their capital tries to explain: ‘You’ve never seen the limb-farms. The workshops, the fucking bile workshops. You’ve never heard the music … If the grindylow take New Crobuzon, they wouldn’t enslave us, or kill us, or even eat us all. They wouldn’t do anything so … comprehensible.’ These are the theatrics of the uncanny, the quintessential pulp-fiction art of hinting at eldritch presences so ineffably ghastly and wrong that they cannot be properly described. Creatures like this aren’t (as many SF aliens are) just people in fancy dress, strange-looking but with basically human concerns, nor are they exactly beasts from the id, projections of human fear and desire scuttling in the walls. They represent something which simply doesn’t care about your story, or even recognise that it’s there. In Embassytown, the humans are surrounded by such otherness in the form of the unknowable Hosts, who as they fall victim to language become figures of strange threat, ‘like monsters in the dark, like figures from children’s books’. But Miéville doesn’t let them turn into bogeymen. With Embassytown under siege, Avice begins to see that she will have to communicate with the Hosts not by penetrating their opacity, but by accommodating it. Miéville’s novels don’t ask us to understand monsters, but they require us to accept the claims even of the monsters we can’t understand, whose stories we’ll never know.