Embassytown by China Mieville: Sci-fi meets Linguistics

Hello all and welcome to another blog post!

Today’s post is, as you’ve probably gathered from the title, about China Mieville’s book Embassytown. It was quite the experience to go from fantasy/adventure straight into solid sci-fi with a little dash of language etymology and the evolution of language on extraterrestrial worlds, but I think I needed it after so long away from what is arguably one of my more favoured genres – if anything I’ve always grown up reading and watching and hearing about (and yes, writing) sci-fi, so it’s an old stomping ground of mine.

But on with the review!

First of all, Mieville is a FANTASTIC AUTHOR. I haven’t read a book in a while that is so full of everything, managing to relate to things like mythology, biblical lore, history, linguistics, politics and the ever-trusty exploration of new worlds; whilst also managing to keep my eyes glued to the page and racing along past light-speed. Mieville uses the textual references as clues to what is going on in the work; characters with names like ‘EzCal’ (Ezekiel, Bible reference), ‘CalVin’ (referencing the political ideologist), ‘EzRa’ (later split to Ez and Ra, referencing the ancient Egyptian sun god),’ Scile’ (Silas, Bible reference) and ‘Avice’ (Avarice, n. an extreme wish for financial or material gain) are all examples of word play that give readers some way of gauging where the story may lead next or what the characters might represent. In most cases this is entirely fitting for each character, however their personalities are molded and changed throughout the novel as the plotline progresses.

The premise of Embassytown is at first the ways in which the locals – the Terres – interact with the indigenous species, called the Ariekai, especially in terms of how they communicate with one another. This is a particularly hard thing to accomplish, as the two languages – Anlgo-Ubiq AKA English (Terre) and Language (Ariekan) – use two completely different formulation structures. Where Anglo-Ubiq is designed to work via a single voice and the use of possessives and gestures (that glass not that one is mine whilst pointing to indicate), Language can only be spoken in reference to previously existing ideas. The Ariekai have no means of using Language to confabulate new meaning around objects as individual objects, instead they must create similes in order to describe the new object/concept/idea in relation to something already existing. Not only this, but they speak with two mouths, so a simple greeting would be two words uttered at once, for example:




Even names are uttered in this format, and it is the speech cadence and sound mixture that gives the word its ‘soul’, a means for understanding it in only the one context. Later in the novel, the protagonist – Avice Benner Cho – is able to teach the Ariekai how to speak without referring just to similes (herself having been used in the construction of one such simile), but also to metaphors. These are what the Ariekai have never learnt to do, and call lies, simply because they are untruths and cannot be referenced to anything already existing. In doing this the Ariekai learn to master their language in a similar format to Anglo-Ubiq, and thus give themselves the abilities to use it for abstractions and new thoughts.

The linguistics exploration is certainly a major element to Embassytown‘s plot, however what is also quite relevant to notice is the development from a relatively peaceful society of coexisting exots and Terres into a society in which political corruption and plotting is rife, and it is only the few who are willing to push the boundaries and think new thoughts that end up winning the war that breaks out and thus help the Ariekai to achieve linguistic evolution. In this sense, Embassytown is a novel that is about freedom, and fighting for the right to speak free thoughts and new ideas. It is also about fighting for individuality, and all those little nuances that we take for granted and how especially important they are to us as people.

There’s so much more to it, so many more little nooks and crannies of awesomeness, that I just can’t fit it all into one post. Nor do I want to give you readers any more spoilers!

Suffice to say, I highly recommend this to anyone who is up for a gripping novel that you will want to stay up far past your bedtime for, and learn something while you’re at it in a most wonderful way.

Don’t stop reading!



3 thoughts on “Embassytown by China Mieville: Sci-fi meets Linguistics

  1. I found myself kinda liking “Embassytown”, but also very frustrated by it. The main character talks a lot about these big events going on just off screen, as it were, but rarely participates in them herself, except at the end. It’s kind of like if Star Wars were told from Luke’s cousin’s point of view. We don’t experience any action or excitement, only hear about it third hand. Still, an interesting exercise with some neat linguistic notions.


    1. Come to think of it I did find Mieville’s tendency to avoid talking about the ‘big events’ from Avice’s point of view detracted from what could have been a more in-depth plot with a better intimation of the exact scale of the events. The idealism behind it was admirable though, do you think you’d read it again?


      1. I admire a lot of things about the book, mainly its ideas and wordplay. I don’t think I’d read it again, but I would probably read “Perdito Street Station” or “The Scar” again. Really amazing descriptions and worldbuilding, and plots that go pretty fast once they get going (which take too long, but you can’t have everything).


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