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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: Discussed with regard to the various exots (aliens), some of who are very good at speaking English, even uncannily so, adopting Terre accents when delivering otherwise alien anecdotes. Subverted with the native Ariekei or Hosts, who 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.
  • 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.
    • Ambassadors who lose one of their doppels are said to be cleaved, such as Bren, who used to be BrenDan.
    • A rash of suicides sees many Ambassadors reduced in this way, most notably when Vin of CalVin hangs himself after realizing that the colony and the whole civilization of the Hosts is doomed.
  • Arc Words:
    • The requirement for Language to be literal means that stressed repetition of the same words is a key component of communicating ideas.
    • The Hosts pay a young Avice to go through a bizarrely staged performance to make her into a simile, "The girl who ate what was given to her." The full simile is more elaborate — the girl is in pain, in the dark, in an abandoned restaurant where people don't eat anymore. As the book goes on and the simile is repeated, the ways in which the Ariekei are both like and unlike the girl make the simile increasingly apt, and finally lead to the breakthrough in which the Hosts do not merely learn to lie, but grasp metaphor and symbolism.
    • Surl Tesh-echer's most successful lie: "Before the humans came we didn't speak." Surl Tesh-echer's friend, the one Avice calls Spanish Dancer, makes the line the focus of its Big Damn Speech as the majority of Ariekei awaken to an understanding of lies, metaphor, and signifying language.
  • 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. People who spend most of their lives aboard starships travelling from place to place, like Avice, aren't spacers, they're immersers.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: The Ariekei can't even conceive of a language produced by a single voice without sentience behind it, meaning they have no written language, Hand Signals, or symbolic language. 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 — and not just naturally born identical twins, but doppels, twins genetically engineered, specially trained, and mechanically enhanced to be even more identical. 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.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: Hosts, Language, and Ambassadors and are all used to refer to concepts which go far beyond the base meaning of the words: an alien species, their unique mode of communication by means of two voices speaking with mutual shared intent, and pairs of genetically identical humans specially trained to act in exact accord to allow communication with the Hosts using Language.
  • 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 addictive 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: New Ambassador EzRa, despite their job description requiring them to be identical: one is short and stocky, the other tall and thin, one outgoing, the other introverted, and one selfish and weak-willed, the other much more dedicated — albeit to undermining Embassytown on behalf of Bremen.
  • Dissimile: Ariekei use these quite frequently because it's as close as they can get to abstraction.
  • The Empath:
    • Ariekei have a limited ability to detect not emotion but sentience; Language not only requires two voices speaking in harmony, but two minds thinking in harmony behind it. A machine speaking otherwise perfect Language is unintelligible, yet recordings preserve the effect. If the harmony is somehow imperfect, the result is a kind of cognitive dissonance which can act as an addictive drug to Ariekes listeners. In the case of EzRa, where the two speakers are compatible and yet despise one another, and are not genetically identical, the effect is especially pronounced.
    • Various aliens are mentioned to have empathic abilities of their own. Subverted with Ez, a human. Ez was specifically chosen for his role as one half of an Ambassador because of his unique ability to read people and offer them what they wanted. Despite this gift for manipulation, however, Ez cares little for their wellbeing, and he previously put his abilities to use as an interrogator.
  • A God Am I: Cal was always power-hungry, looking to expand the power of the Ambassadors and take the senior position for himself. With the Oratees now dependent on him to feed their addiction following his bonding with Ez, Cal discovers the addicts must also obey his orders, and he is quick to embrace his new role as the god drug. By the time his reign ends, he has come to adorn himself in royal purple with gold trim, and the suture scars of his new implant have been accentuated with tattoos to resemble a sort of crown.
  • Hand Signals: The Ariekei cannot understand gestures, even ones as simple as pointing, 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.
  • Insistent Terminology: Many, used to render several concepts opaque to the reader, to preserve a sense of mystery and so that The Reveal can come as a twist. To the people of Embassytown, the native lifeforms are Hosts, rather than Ariekei. The local Ambassadors to the Hosts are always referred to as if they are one person, despite the fact that they have two genetically engineered bodies (called doppels rather than twins) and, it is known, undergo substantial training and receive specially implanted links so that they can preserve what is ultimately an illusion.
  • Language of Truth: Lying is impossible for the Ariekei, who cannot comprehend counterfactuals. As such, Language consists exclusively of statements of fact. Teaching the Ariekei to lie is at first treated as a mild novelty, then a serious threat to their culture or even downright blasphemy against divine beings, but finally an act of emancipation, opening the species up to understanding and awareness of each other and the greater universe.
  • Literal-Minded: Exaggerated as a core part of the narrative: the Hosts cannot even conceive of lies before the arrival of humans. Metaphor is not just confusing to them, it's basically incomprehensible. This limitation of their language on how and what they can think ends up being broken.
  • 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 — ABC — is the protagonist of a story about language and meaning.
  • 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 what is called biorigging, biotech as uncanny as the Ariekei themselves, including Bizarrchitecture. It's not described in exact detail, but referred to with terms such as "throats" and "aeoli"; where a human might have a tablet or other device, Ariekei are accompanied by dog-sized "battery creatures". This proves problematic when biorigged technology proves to be just as susceptible to addiction as the Ariekei themselves.
  • 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 (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), which the besieged Embassytowners see as metaphors for their own predicament as Embassytown comes under siege by the addicted Ariekei. 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 referred to as doppels — 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. Heavily subverted later on, as doppels are shown to conceal their differing opinions from their sibling to avoid being ostracized, exiled, or otherwise un-personed. A whole wing of failed pair bonds are kept in seclusion and isolation underneath the actual embassy to keep up the facade.
  • Small Town Boredom: Avice leaves Embassytown to escape its bland smallness, returning only reluctantly, and seeing it with new eyes through her husband and later the Ariekei.
  • 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.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Many outwardly peaceful relationships turn out to be far less placid beneath the surface. Several Ambassadors actually can't stand each other, but are forced to maintain a public facade of being one seamless individual. Bren ruminates that he might have only realized he hated his doppel Dan years after his death, but the friction was there all along.
  • 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: "Embassy|Town, Town|Embassy, Embassytown|Embassytown".
  • 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. Later subverted: being two people, even if they're "doppels", one twin might develop feelings for the third person where the other does not.
  • 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.
  • We Will Use WikiWords in the Future: Ambassadors' names are written in this manner — JoaQuin, MagDa, CalVin, etc. — denoting their dual nature as (supposedly) one shared mind in two bodies. Each half of the name refers to one of half of the Ambassador pair, and the two syllables are spoken simultaneously in Language.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Avice's erstwhile husband Scile wants to prevent further contamination of the Ariekei by outsiders, believing there is something beautiful about their perfectly literal Language, incapable of telling a lie. He comes to assign a kind of divinity to the Hosts, the last honest beings in creation. Unfortunately this leads him to engineer a conspiracy to murder one Ariekes for being exceptionally good at lying, and later to bear witness as the Absurd stand poised to wipe out all humans on the planet, and finally to murder Cal in the hopes of ensuring the conflict continues. He believes that the Ariekei are being corrupted, and in the end Avice imagines he sees the surviving humans as a whole colony of "Lucifers", leading a species into sin.