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Literature / Embassytown

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Embassytown is a 2011 novel by China Miéville. Superficially a sort of New Weird twist on the 19th-century colonial tale of discovery, the novel is actually an extended exercise in Fun with Foreign Languages.

Designated Hero, narrator, and pioneer Avice Benner Cho was born in the colony of Embassytown, on the planet Arieka, located at the very edges of the known universe. There, humans live alongside profoundly weird aliens called the Ariekei (or "Hosts"), who are noteworthy for their baffling language known as Language. By some unspecified mechanism, Language can only be understood by the Ariekei if it is spoken by two speakers who share one mind. As such, only genetically-engineered identical twins known as Ambassadors can communicate directly with the aliens.

After leaving home to become an interdimensional explorer, Avice reluctantly returns to Embassytown with her linguist husband, who wishes to study Language. During their stay, the status quo is thrown into disarray by an arrival from the colony's parent nation, threatening to destroy both the human and alien communities.


This novel provides examples of:

  • The Ageless: The Shur'asi, another alien species, are biologically immortal. They cannot die from old age or illness, but can still be killed by violence or by accident.
  • Alien Geometries:
    • Reality in Embassytown is divided into the Manchmal (corresponding to conventional reality) and the Immer (the scary sort of hyperspace). As an "immerser," Avice is one of the few humans with sufficient talent at sideways thinking to face the Immer and not Go Mad from the Revelation.
    • As a subset of how bizarrely weird the Immer is, it is stated that the Manchmal is the third iteration of the current universe, the previous two having been destroyed. The Manchmal sits upon the Immer like a boat would float on the water.
  • Aliens Speaking English: Subverted, because the Ariekei are incapable of even recognizing any language other than Language to be intelligent communications. However, the trope is abruptly fulfilled during the climax when the Ariekei become capable of abstraction.
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  • Always Identical Twins: Ambassadors are created and raised this way and scrupulously maintain their details, right down to having the same fingerprints. Avice met normal identical twins performing together once, and was struck by how they were both like and unlike each other.
  • Amicably Divorced: Avice's three prior marriages ended without rancor. She's less lucky with the one she has in the book.
  • Anachronic Order: The three parts (of nine) alternate between periods denoted as Formerly (Avice's background) and Latterday (the nominal present).
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: With all the perfectly cloned twins running around, it isn't long before someone loses their better half.
  • Arc Words:
    • "The girl who ate what was given to her."
    • "Before the humans came we didn't speak"
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • Several words used to describe the Immer come from German, including "immer" itself, which means "always". Others include "manchmal", used to describe the regular world, which mean "sometimes", and a kind of scary hyperspace beast known as "hai", from the German word for shark.
    • Gets turned into a bilingual Stealth Pun as well. How do you enter the immer? You immerse.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: The Ariekei can't even conceive of a single isolated mind, and, despite learning the language, humanity can't even begin to communicate with them until someone stumbles across the trick of having identical twins speak in two-part harmony. When a pair of folks who aren't identical twins show up who nevertheless seem to be able to communicate, the result begins to drive the aliens mad.
  • Chemical Messiah: Because the Ambassador EzRa consists of two non-twins who hate each other, the Ariekei find their pronouncements intoxicating and addictive, leading to a Terminally Dependent Society. The Ariekei take to calling them the "god-drug".
  • Compelling Voice: The Ariekei who hear EzCal's voice have no choice but to follow their orders.
  • Coordinated Clothes: Ambassadors strive to be as identical as possible at all times except for the rogues.
  • Different as Night and Day: EzRa, despite their job description requiring them to be identical.
  • Dissimile: Ariekei use these quite frequently because it's as close as they can get to abstraction.
  • Hand Signals: The Ariekei cannot understand these, as it is not verbal communication of Language, which is the only way they can communicate. This plays an important role in the climax: Ariekei who have torn out their "fanwings" are no longer capable of speaking or hearing Language, and are thus forced to discover new methods of communication. It takes them a long time to even comprehend they are communicating to each other with physical signals, and the realization of this is what allows them to learn how to communicate in ways other than Language and thus, how to lie.
  • Language of Truth: Lying is impossible for the Ariekei, who cannot comprehend counterfactuals. As such, Language consists exclusively of statements of fact.
  • May–December Romance: Avice and Bren, eventually, though their relationship may be less "romance" than "shacking up before the end of the world."
  • Meaningful Name: Avice Benner Cho.
  • Never Learned to Read: As Language can only be understood when spoken with a mind behind the voice, none of the Ariekei are capable of reading or even understanding the concept of the written word. Averted in the climax when many of the Ariekei learn the meaning of signs and symbols.
  • No Blood Ties: Human children in Embassytown are raised in nurseries by "shiftparents", who raise kids professionally in weeks-long shifts, rather than their own blood relatives. Avice says that all the shiftparents she had were loving caretakers and that she has heard more cases of abuse from blood families.
  • Organic Technology: Everything the Ariekei do is accomplished with biotech as uncanny as they are, including Bizarrchitecture.
  • Person as Verb: Because Language is incapable of abstraction, new words must refer to specific people, places, or objects. As such, several of the characters, including Avice, become "living similes" by performing strange and unique actions, subsequently becoming a part of Language. To talk about something being like a girl who ate what was given to her in a dark room, first they have to find a girl, take her to a dark room, and give her some food.
  • Polyamory: When Avice returns to Embassytown it's with a husband who agrees with her that they are compatible in all ways except sexually. Generally they're each only mildly curious about if the other is sleeping with someone, short or long term.
  • Ridiculously Human Robot: Robots or 'automas' may have advanced enough 'turingware' to seem to have human responses and thought processes, but generally it's a facade. Played with in the case of Ehrsul. The most powerful stand-alone A.I. in Embassytown, she has a human enough personality that Avice comes to see her as her best friend, though Avice also wonders constantly if things Ehrsul says and does are true personality or the product of elaborate subroutines. However, when the Ariekei flip out, Ehrsul develops a literal case of Heroic BSoD and is incapable of processing the new norm, revealing to Avice that she was a fairly inhuman, limited entity all along.
  • Shout-Out: To George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, which the besieged Embassytowners see as metaphors for their own predicament. They also believe, perhaps inspired by Romero's name, that these films are "early Roman" or "late Georgian."
  • Single-Minded Twins: When Ambassadors are created - carefully engineered zygotes split to make identical twins - only the ones properly in tune with each other are able to speak Language that the Ariekei can understand. They have implanted link-tech and never go far from each other, becoming stressed and anxious if separated by as much as a corner, and are consistently referred to as the same unit.
  • Small Town Boredom: Avice leaves Embassytown to escape its bland smallness, returning only reluctantly.
  • Synchronization: Brought up. Often if one half of an Ambassador dies the other quickly follows, and one such survivor believes that he should have known his other half was dying.
  • Theme Twin Naming: All Ambassadors have two syllable names like MagDa or CalVin, with each syllable referring to a different component.
  • Title Drop: Relentless, since the title refers to an embassy town called Embassytown. See especially the last page.
  • Twin Threesome Fantasy: An automatic consequence of bedding an Ambassador: The only thing better than sex with twins is sex with twins who reflexively think and behave as one person.
  • Unconventional Formatting: Since Language is a two-part harmony, words spoken in Language are presented as fractions, with one voice (the "cut") appearing in the numerator and the other voice (the "turn") appearing in the denominator.