Embassytown by China Miéville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is, beyond doubt, a very ambitious book. Playing with the idea of language as the foundation of our self-awareness, the author builds up a world where humans live by the grace of their “hosts”, a wildly alien species which does not understand speech if it is not spoken by two mouths simultaneously, but one mind. All utterances the hosts make in Language (notice capital ‘L’) are true; they cannot consciously lie. Also, strangely enough, they cannot “refer”: all symbols in the language must be precise. For example they’ll say “the glass which is half-full sitting in the window”, instead of simply “that glass”. The word “that” does not exist in Language. From there on it gets stranger.
This is “the new weird”, so don’t expect anything you can relate to. Perhaps my attention span is low, or my memory for detail deficient, but I never got hooked, the expositions always left me hanging. There was always this thing or creature I wasn’t quite sure what it actually was, and it distracted me from the story. I cannot for the life of me even describe what the “hosts” look like, according to the author, even now: I have no clue.
The character building is sketchy, but wonderful, and together with the cheer “what the hell is this really about”-ness kept me going.
Now. I’m a lunch-time poet and a couch philosopher, and I admit to some confusion: philosophy of language was never my strong point. Also, it get’s harder due me never getting the hang of the world building. But here’s some questions: Is it at all possible to imagine a creature which is not incapable of lying due to nature, but to language? Does a language which does not allow for referrals at all make sense? And the big one: the hosts only understand Language spoken by humans if it is spoken with two voices but a unified mind, but this begs the questions: how the hell does it know it’s a unified mind?
That last question almost had me stop reading. As far as I can tell we get no good answer to that, and it is central to the entire story.
By the way, consider this: Asked by Edge.org, “what do you believe but cannot yet prove?”, American philosopher of mind (and, I admit, my one of my heroes) Daniel C. Dennet, answered something along the lines of “that language is a prerequisite for consciousness”. That without language we wouldn’t have been able to be conscious, or even get there: first you get the language, then you evolve the consciousness from there.
So yes, I accept that language shapes the way we are and the way we see ourselves, but most of the time, when the book lingers over some strange detail of the hosts communications, I was distracted by “how the hell would that work?”, or “is that even possible?”, or simply “er… what?”. Which somewhat diminishes my returns from this book.
However, in the end the author kept me reading. And, I’ll give him extra points for trying, and some more more originality. But it is not a book I expect to return too.
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