LAST MONTH, Mike Cahill’s first feature film, Another Earth, opened in limited release across North America. The notices have been good, identifying it as a measured, contemplative film, which, although featuring a parallel Earth and so evoking many traditional science fiction topoi, has none of the big budget special effects that mark most of the science fiction films at our local megaplexes. Indeed, that’s perhaps been the central topic of the notices — the small scale, the slow pace, the focus on character and emotion. These elements have managed to derange the genre compass of many critics — like Dave McGinn, of Canada’s daily National Post. In a review titled “It may look like science fiction, but it’s not,” McGinn explains that “the metaphysics function as a metaphor in what’s an affecting…drama about having to live with the choices we make and our need to find redemption.”
This is an old critical conceit: if it has aliens or warp-drive, then it’s science fiction; if it has emotion or metaphors of the human condition, then it isn’t. Derangement by estrangement, we might call the persistence of this formula, if we wanted to be charitable. Ignorance and superficiality if we didn’t. McGinn’s is a particularly creaky version, considering how over the last twenty or thirty years mainstream writers have increasingly put the conventions of science fiction to creative use and great accomplishment — as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Richard Powers’s Generosity, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Or, conversely, how many science fiction writers have turned toward the undeniably literary — Ted Chiang, the late Joanna Russ, Ian McDonald, William Gibson, Kelly Link, Karen Lord, or perhaps the greatest example of the trend, J.G. Ballard. [See Rob Latham’s “ Malaise Deeper than Shopping” in these pages.]
The most recent example of science fiction’s aesthetic power is the extraordinary new novel by China Miéville, whose tenth book demonstrates that fiction can be both serious and fun, a light fancy of the imagination and a deep investigation into what makes us human. Miéville is widely known for a string of bestselling and prize-winning novels that splice together elements of fantasy, horror, noir, and science fiction Embassytown is his first unequivocally science fiction text, his least hybridized book yet.
Part space opera and part planetary romance, set in our distant future, Embassytown is the tale of a young woman born and raised in the human enclave on the planet Arieka. Avice Brenner Cho leaves home to become an interstellar sailor, one of the few people capable of negotiating the “immer,” the subspace or hyperspace “altreality” that permits faster-than-light travel. Having met and married Scile, an academic linguist fascinated by the language of the indigenous Ari...read more