China Mieville's The City and the City (2009) imagined a culture in which inhabitants of two cities in the same space had to constantly construct and reconstruct their reality, through a process of ongoing discipline, self-censorship, and outright fear. Embassytown comes at the same problem from a different angle: the nature of language itself, or, here, Language. Like Mary Doria Russell's Jesuits-in-space duology Children of God and The Sparrow, Embassytown imagines human contact with a species that is not just other, but Other, with no overlap between its mental worldmap and a human's. Embassytown is a colony town on Arieka, a planet located in an otherwise uninteresting backwater of space; the humans (and some non-human colonists, "exots") have come to comfortable terms with the vaguely Lovecraftian but otherwise reasonably friendly Ariekei, known as Hosts. As a result of their long contact, the two cultures have slowly been altered by each other: the Hosts, interested in trade with the humans, have become fascinated with the possibility of lying; the humans, who depend on the Hosts' unique biotech in order to survive the planet's atmosphere, have developed Ambassadors, genetically engineered identical twins ("doppels"), who are the only ones capable of actually speaking to the Hosts. But the usually distant Bremen empire drops a spanner in the works: they send their own Ambassador, EzRa, an experiment in undermining Embassytown's dangerously self-sufficient culture. What happens next is both horrific and entirely unpredictable.
Why the Ambassadors? In Language, Mieville has invented a prelapsarian fantasy of perfect reference. (I use "prelapsarian" advisedly, as both the characters and the narrative itself explicitly interpret the novel's events in turns of the Fall.) Language requires two voices simultaneously, but in and of itself, that's not the problem. As our narrator and protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, explains, "[t]heir language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen" (55). Here, the possible slippage between intention and expression vanishes. The Ambassadors not only speak with two voices simultaneously, the Cut and the Turn, but also have been exhaustively trained to produce the illusion of a unitary mind. Not only that, but as Avice's husband Scile, a linguist, goes on to observe, "[e]verything in Language is a truth claim" (56). Because Language cannot express that-which-is-not, any rhetorical trope in Language must be brought into being physically before it can be used; that is, where I might say "I feel like a half-eaten chocolate bar, discarded on a hot summer day," and my listener would be able to imaginatively connect image (the chocolate bar) and emotion (used yet abandoned/impending destruction/etc.), the Hosts could not produce or understand this simile without a pre-existing objective referent. The chocolate bar and the summer day would need to have existed in reality before the simile could be deployed; the Hosts enact new tropes so that once-inexpressible thoughts or feelings may be spoken. Post-colonization, such tropes are frequently produced in concert with the humans. As a child, Avice is chosen to become a trope: "There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time" (27). The experience, Avice comments, "wasn't by any means the worst thing I've ever suffered, or the most painful, or the most disgusting" (25); the potential horror involved, though, crops up later, when Avice and Scile meet another simile, "it's like the boy who was opened up and closed again" (100). The sufferings of the individuals involved, however, are of no moment to the Hosts, who are interested instead in the thought-possibilities associated with each new trope. (As we discover later, this thoughtless cruelty is echoed on the human end by the frequently horrific process for training Ambassadors, as many of the doppels effectively flunk out and wind up imprisoned, sometimes rendered insane.) Indeed, the Hosts do not understand human utterance in terms of language at all. In turn, Mieville foregrounds the limits of our own language, both by introducing terms without defining them ("floaking," "immer") and by refusing to narrate or represent things one might expect (we never find out precisely what happened to Avice or the boy who was opened and closed, nor do we know what Avice looks like). Praising Mieville's skill here, Ursula K. LeGuin comments that "one of the virtuosities of SF is the invention of box-words that the reader must open to discover a trove of meaning and implication." In the context of Embassytown, though, such coinages take on a new force, as they are exactly what the Ariekei cannot do.
The novel's conflict revolves around the collision of two different problems: metaphor and the narcotic effect of the Bremen Ambassador, EzRa. Because EzRa's joint mind is insufficiently unified, his speech carries an internal dissonance that turns out to be horribly addictive to Hosts, who respond to it as though it were a powerful drug. Or, rather: EzRa's language is a drug to the Hosts. This drugging, reminiscent of the role of alcohol and opium in the history of imperialism, prompts the Hosts in turn to take drastic action: they deafen themselves, but in so doing deprive themselves of both Language and, it appears at first, all thought. Enraged, the deafened Hosts set out to destroy the human colony, although how they manage to communicate at first proves mysterious. But well before this, as I mentioned, the Hosts had begun to explore the possibility of lying. Specifically, they wanted to articulate not just things-that-are-not, but also things-that-are-other-things. In other words, they were striving for metaphor. Historically, the Hosts focused on producing similes like Avice; real-life situation X could be said to be like real-life situation Y. This is still a truth claim, as both the speaker's situation and the simile have objective referents. But metaphor is a fiction: now, real-life situation X becomes real-life situation Y. Without going into detail, it turns out that the solution to the EzRa crisis is vested in the possibility of fiction itself. But how can the Hosts' culture survive the transition from simile to metaphor?
Much like Mieville's Iron Council, which reworks and ultimately subverts the meaning of the Passion, Embassytown revisits the fall from Paradise. It does so, however, by questioning the fantasy of cultural purity. Avice reflects to herself that the majority of Ariekai similes "were Terre men and women: there was something in us that facilitated" (106). The process of producing similes, that is, literally brings humanity into Language, transforms it into what postcolonial theorists would call a hybrid. The Hosts speak with humans, literally. And, as Scile admits, their encounter with humans has spurred them to make more similes (56). Cultural contact spurs unpredictable and uncontrollable change. Scile, however, is rapt by the perfection of Language, in which "'[w]ords don't signify; they are their referents'" (80). This is God-talk, a language of absolute truth, in which interpretation itself evanesces before the absolute nature of reference. This is a language that admits of no fiction. For Scile and his followers, Language turns out to be Eden--not in a space, but in enunciation itself. When' Scile realizes that one Ariekai is seeking to speak in metaphor instead of simile, he links him to Satan: "The world becomes a lie. That's what Surl Tesh-echer wants. To bring in a lie [...] It wants to usher in evil'" (141). To speak in metaphor is to become the Prince of Lies, to eject the Hosts from their self-enclosed Paradise. And yet, Language has already been "infected," as it were, by the human similes and other tropes. Scile chooses to ally himself with those who seek to preserve the purity of Language, even though Language has already become impure (if it was pure in the first place); more to the point, in so doing he denies the agency of those Ariekai who choose metaphor. He wishes to preserve their innocence in the face of human contact, even if it means engineering the deaths of Ariekei "liars." Scile yearns, in effect, to keep the Ariekei outside of history, even though they are already in it. But his efforts to maintain Language after EzRa are themselves bad readings of history, specifically of imperial logic; as Avice dryly notes at the end, if the Ariekei had managed to wipe out humanity (the source of the contamination), then the Bremen empire "wouldn't forbear genociding them in return" (345). After cultural contact, Paradise cannot be saved--but whose Paradise was it in the first place, the Ariekei's, or Scile's?
Like Judah Low in Iron Council, Scile fails to see that the salvation he offers--in this case, forestalling or erasing the fall from Language to language--is not salvation at all, and not his to give. It is, as Avice realizes, born out of story in its own right. Scile, she sees, imagines himself "a witness and apostle while they--what, cleaning fire, holy avengers who'd rather cut themselves than be tainted by lies?--purged the ruined Ariekei, got the world ready again, for unborn pure-Languaged young" (339). Language offers Scile the dream of a world before storytelling, but Scile himself can do nothing but tell stories. His yearning to return to Paradise threatens to bring on the apocalypse; conversely, his loathing of storytelling prevents him from thinking in terms of history. He cannot, in other words, imagine the possibility of a felix culpa--a fortunate fall. The effects of the speaking drug do, in fact, violently destroy Ariekei's old culture; what Scile fails to see is that, rather than seeking to return to his Eden, they might choose their own path, both sorry and not-sorry for what is gone. Or, as one Ariekei says to Avice at the end, "I regret nothing" and "I regret" (343).