I finished China Miéville’s Embassytown the other night just before going to sleep. This was yet another book where for the first part I wasn’t too sure what I was reading, but wow, the end grabbed me and I couldn’t put it down.
Avice grows up on a planet shared with a non human life form, Ariekei or known to her her whole life as The Hosts. The Hosts help provide them with everything they need to live. And the planet is at the outer reaches of known space and a colony of one particular ruling people or planet (wasn’t ever sure exactly on that one). But the intriguing part is that the Hosts speak a very strange language and everything they say must be true. So to have a metaphor, they have to make it happen. Avice is chosen as a child to become a simile by having something happen to her that they can then use in language.
And that is really what this entire book is about, language and how it’s used and understood. I don’t want to say too much, but the revelations about language, thinking about how we speak, how we describe things, how we are able to lie, it was a fascinating ending. And much of it could be used to think about how language is used today, by people in power and not in power. Avice is a hero, the way she, in the time of crisis, figures out a way forward is quite amazing. I wish I could know her.
I read the kindle version, graciously loaned by my library. My highlights are below, but you may not want to read them for fear of spoilers.
I was born in a place that I thought for thousands of hours was enough of a universe. Then I knew quite suddenly that it was not, but that I wouldn’t be able to leave; and then I could leave. (loc 282)
All Embassytown had had was its monopoly on Language, and with EzRa, Bremen had tried to break that. (loc 3516)
Counterrevolution through language pedagogy and bureaucracy. (loc 3518)
Perhaps there was no sense of truth left for them, or thought. Those rebels must be a fractured community, without speech, if they were a community at all. Language, for the Ariekei, was truth: without it, what were they? An unsociety of psychopaths. (loc 4114)
Each word of Language meant just what it meant. Polysemy or ambiguity were impossible and with them most tropes that made other languages languages at all. But thatness faces every way: it’s flexible because it’s empty, a universal equivalent. That always means and not that other, too. In their lonely silent way, the Absurd had made a semiotic revolution, and a new language. (loc 4486)
“Similes start … transgressions. Because we can refer to anything. Even though in Language, everything’s literal. Everything is what it is, but still, I can be like the dead and the living and the stars and a desk and fish and anything. Surl Tesh-echer knew that was Language straining to … bust out of itself. To signify.” (loc 4497)
Not paradoxes, I wanted to say; these weren’t paradoxes, they weren’t nonsense. “I don’t want to be a simile anymore,” I said. “I want to be a metaphor.” (loc 4505)
Something in the new language. New thinking. They were signifying now—there, elision, slippage between word and referent, with which they could play. They had room to think new conceptions. (loc 4704)
If language, thought and word were separated, as they just had been, there was no succulence, no titillating impossible. (loc 4708)