Language and Monsters

By Neil EasterbrookAugust 26, 2011

Embassytown by China Miéville

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 Ariekei, whom the Embassytowners call “Hosts,” Avice agrees to indulge his curiosity and return to Arieka. The Hosts’ language, always called “Language,” is a very curious phenomenon. Their speech comes in the form of two words spoken simultaneously, something possible because the Ariekei have two mouths. To inscribe Language, the humans present a graphic image, rather like a mathematical fraction, with a numerator (the “cut”) and a denominator (the “turn”), as in the case of the Host named Surl Tesh-echer, which is written as:





While this sort of inscription initially seems a precious affectation, it proves central to Miéville’s thematics.

Host Language has two features. First, the Hosts only recognize it when it is generated by living beings — by conscious minds — so Language generated by a computer, however semantically and syntactically perfect, isn’t even heard, though a broadcast recording of a conscious being is. Second, Language is exclusively literal; only things that are empirically true can be said. Since Language contains no figurative dimension — no irony, no metaphor, no oxymoron — the Ariekei cannot lie. While the Hosts always have polyphony, they do not have polysemy — the two words always have one meaning.

Embassytown is a novel of ideas — a novel about the philosophy of language, about how language is linked to ethics, and about our “biopolis,” the structure of the links between individual humans and the larger human community. It’s easy to envision the book taking center stage in the seminar room, since Miéville’s star continues to get brighter, no doubt becoming the topic of more and more dreary academic articles which claim to have finally figured out the proper, definitive way to explicate those ideas. This would all sound rather soulless, rather Gradgrindian, I suppose, if I didn’t aspire to be one of the central felons in this enterprise.

Mieville’s philosophy of language is never marginal, never academic, but instead fundamentally integrated in both the novel’s plot and its character development. “I’m in this fucking business for the monsters!” he once remarked, and Embassytown doesn’t disappoint on that front. Before the book ends, we have a robust display of genre conventions, both traditional and innovative: murder, a coup, lotus-eaters, messianic prophecy, war, martyrdom, perfidy, viral suicides, and marauding zombie hoards. Clones commit doppelcide, press-ganging occurs by dismemberment, biorigged plants shit food, and aliens discover semiotics. Crises abound: political and existential, theological and biological. And miraculously, at no point do the Big Ideas diminish the Monsters, and neither do the Monsters trivialize the Big Ideas.

Everything in Embassytown revolves around the conditions and consequences of language, offering up an extended meditation on its figurative function, on what separates art from quotidian speech. Through his career, Miéville’s obsession with language has been the thread that sutures together everything he as written, no matter how often he varies genre and prose style. In a 2003 interview about Perdido Street Station, Miéville remarked that he thought of language not as a condition but as a character, “as more than just a medium, but an end in itself.” Portions of his earlier work are overtly baroque, featuring, as he said in that interview, “language as a sort of stained glass window.” When compared to the rococo excess of Perdido Street Station, Embassytown’s style seems staid, but the book still revels in words themselves, most obviously in the representation of Language and in neologism as a means of building a very different world. This intoxication with words is not just the author’s but the characters’. Regardless of what they might mean — shiftparent, miab, immer, the out — words are, for the Hosts, literally intoxicating.


It is harder than it seems to conceptualize language as exclusively literal. Linguists and poets may often have felt differently, but many philosophers in the West (and, surprisingly, those other authorities on language, the rhetoricians) have tended to conceptualize the literal as “normal,” and the figural as “aberrant,” as seen in the etymology of the word “trope”: a “swerve” or “turn” from “normal” speech. This view takes literal language as the language of discourse and cognition, where figuration is not merely ornamental, but perhaps non-cognitive, or even anti-cognitive.

We generally call this anti-cognitive domain of asserting lies “art”, and its benighted practitioners have from time to time disputed the common philosophical condemnation of the metaphoric. During the renaissance there was Sir Philip Sidney (“An Apology for Poesie”), in the nineteenth century Nietzsche (“On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”), and in recent years we’ve had interesting contributions from Jacques Derrida (“White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy”) and other dons of the poststructural academy. On his acknowledgements page, Miéville lists the influence of I. A. Richards, Paul Ricoeur, and Tran Duc Thao — each wrote at length about the relations between context and meaning, metaphor and cognition, reference and signification. In fact, it’s very likely that Tran’s Investigations into the Origin of Language and Consciousness (1973) is the implicit source of Avice’s analysis concerning “this” and “that” constructions, and why it matters to the Hosts.

Thinking about the role the word “that” plays produces Avice’s great epiphany (and here comes a big spoiler, so perhaps you should skip the rest) that the Hosts’ references to the world are bound very tightly to empirical facts, and they cannot separate signifiers from signifieds in any abstract fashion. This accounts, she thinks, for why the Hosts can’t lie, and why so many are literally intoxicated, sent into rapturous intoxication by words. Having no metaphor, the sort of language that manages to “untether” speakers from the constraints of the cold equations, they are trapped within a literalism that understands language not as a rich, rhizomatic network of metamorphic signs, but as instant access to unmediated reality. Avice teaches figurality to a character named Spanish Dancer, and this eventually allows the Hosts both to end the war and opens them to “New thinking. They were signifying now — there, elision, slippage between word and referent, with which they could play.” And the central realization of this change is that language becomes a medium of making meaning. The moment is joyously protean, explicitly Joycean:

“‘Yes,’ I said, ‘yes,’ and Spanish Dancer cooed and, harmonizing with itself, said:





Embassytown reveals Miéville’s increasing maturity as a writer; while it was in fact initially drafted earlier than his last two novels — The City & the City (2009) and Kraken (2010) — it shows continuing development toward a greater seriousness of purpose and a more contained style. While none of his recent books have topped the sheer imaginative exuberance of Perdido Street Station or The Scar, which, despite their excesses, are enormous fun and emotionally satisfying — Embassytown retains from these earlier novels the unconstrained joy of telling exotic stories.

Many science fiction novels have made language essential to story and theme. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Samuel Delany’s Babel-17, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Russell Hoban’s marvelous Riddley Walker, perhaps the most Jocyean book in science fiction history, is also about language; though like Joyce, Hoban illustrates more than theorizes. But I’m inclined to say that while Riddley Walker is like a miracle, Embassytown IS a miracle. The Scottish philosopher David Hume taught us to remain deeply skeptical of miracles, arguing that they are transgressions of natural facts; we should accept a miracle if and only if it would be even more miraculous for it not to have happened. Nevertheless, I am quite content using the word to describe Embassytown, since I think I understand the difference between natural facts and metaphors. It is a miracle of a novel, one where Big Ideas cohabitate with Monsters, and neither is lessened by what academic propriety insists must be capital letters.


LARB Contributor

Neil Easterbrook is Professor of English at Texas Christian University, where he teaches literary theory and comparative literature. His essays and reviews have appeared in such journals Science Fiction StudiesExtrapolationCritiqueScience Fiction Film and TelevisionPhilosophy and Rhetoric, and South Central Review as well as in books from publishers such as Routledge, Oxford, and Palgrave Macmillan. He is writing a book about China Miéville for the University of Illinois Press.


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