The Post-Colonial Space Opera

A Review of China Miéville’s Embassytown

Over the course of a career which has produced eight novels, a collection of short fiction and, a non-fiction book on Marxist theory, China Miéville has amassed a considerable following for his distinct brand of socially aware speculative fiction. A self-avowed Trotskyist with degrees in anthropology and economics, Miéville has become renown for the deft manner in which he uses the fantastic to explore such real world concerns as abuses of government power, international relations (not always with human beings), and the role of the subaltern in industrialized society. Miéville is no apologist for his love of genre fiction and much of the pleasure in his work comes from his engagement with familiar topoi of pulp tradition, his subversions of certain clichés, and his willingness to blur the perceived boundaries between various modes of genre fiction.The Scar weaved monsters and quantum theory into the maritime adventure story, while his Hugo award-winning The City and The City fused Hammett-style roman noir with Phildickian weirdness to explore the ways in which city dwellers can be trained to studiously ignore other communities. The recent novel Krakenis an affectionate parody of Lovecraftian apocalypse narratives. In his newest work, Embassytown, Miéville eschews the generic hybridity that has become his calling card in favor of tackling what is arguably the most traditional of science fiction subgenres: the Space Opera. Unsurprisingly, he makes it his own – crafting a narrative that is at once intellectually rigorous and intoxicatingly strange.

To clarify, Space Opera is a specific subgenre within science fiction (SF) focusing on interplanetary travel and typically involves contact with alien beings and high adventure. Or, as SF writer Brian Aldiss affectionately terms it, “the good old stuff.” However, this particular mode of storytelling has had something of a controversial history within the science fiction genre at large. On the one hand, it calls to mind the genre at its most exuberantly escapist – think of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian visions of a humanity united by its love of exploration in Star Trek or the retro-cool outlaws of Joss Whedon’s space western Firefly. But the earliest space operas are also often heavily tied to colonialist narratives, of encounters with alien cultures which inevitably end in some sort of conquest and an insistence on the superiority of our own homegrown (often Anglo-American and depressingly patriarchal) values. The most famous example of this would be the insistence of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, that stories published in his magazine which involved aliens had to end with humanity triumphing over them.

As science fiction became more self-aware and welcomed a more diverse group of authors, they began to challenge, question, and debunk this particular type of narrative, but it still remains a significant reference point for the genre. Case in point: the top grossing science fiction film of all-time, James Cameron’s Avatar, is a strident and unambiguous rebuke of the conquest narrative. Yet as io9’s Annalee Newitz has insightfully pointed out, it can also be read as a fantasy about “[leading] people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.” Consensual colonization, essentially. Miéville's novel feels like an attempt to move past the fantasies concerned with absolving white guilt or endorsing white privilege in the direction of a more intellectually honest discourse on the subject.

The book concerns Avice Benner Cho, a young woman who grew up in Embassytown, an outpost colony on a distant alien world. The human colonists share this planet with its indigenous inhabitants, a race of insectoid creatures known as the Ariekei who are formally and respectfully addressed as the Hosts. Communicating with the Ariekei presents a unique set of difficulties. Because of certain aspects of Ariekei physiology, their language can only be spoken by human beings who have been specifically altered and socially groomed for this task. Moreover, the Ariekei concept of language entirely precludes semiotics and signifiers in favor of referent claims, rendering them incapable of lying or learning to speak the tongues of other species. As a race, they are dependent on similes and other means of literal comparison in order to communicate. Due to an incident in her childhood, Avice has been immortalized in the foreign language as a living simile, employed in Ariekei rhetoric in the same manner we might talk about “the boy who stuck his finger in the dike” if he walked around our town. As such, she occupies a position of some prestige and minor celebrity in both cultures. When an unexpected incident involving a visiting ambassador jeopardizes relations between the Ariekei and their human guests, Avice struggles to get things back on track by using her unique position in Ariekei culture.

In many ways, Embassytown feels like a spiritual successor to the politically aware SF of the 1960’s and 70’s. In particular, its engagement with semiotics and linguistics bears favorable comparison to Samuel Delany’s classic novel, Babel-17. Both novels concern themselves with how language shapes ontological perspective, thought and culture, thus effecting how we interact with others. But Miéville goes a step further in his investigations, using the truly alien qualities of the Ariekei to make us stop and consider how factors such as biology influence the way we ourselves conceive and communicate ideas, as well as how we construct social customs. The concern at the heart of Miéville's book is cultural exchange, the ways in which contact with the foreign inevitably change both parties for better and for worse.

Miéville makes his concern with communication apparent from the outset, peppering his typically baroque prose stylings with neologisms native to the citizens of Embassytown. Not only is this effective as a world building tool, helping to ground us in this futuristic setting, but it also serves as an evocative reminder of how language itself mutates and evolves with the cultures it serves. Particularly lovely examples include the concept of shiftparents, in a literal example of the “it takes a village” philosophy and floaking, defined by our narrator as a “life-technique of aggregated skill, luck, laziness and chutzpah” native to space travelers such as herself. When the children of Embassytownswear oaths, they promise to “say it like a Host,” an expression which highlights the Ariekei’s otherness while simultaneously venerating it. Thus Embassytown befittingly situates itself as a linguistic adventure in the vein of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. We better understand both the ethos and priorities of this new world by understanding how its inhabitants communicate.

Avice herself is a particularly rich and fascinating character in a genre which is often unfairly derided for lacking psychological depth. She is also something of a departure for Miéville, who frequently employs antiheroes in his narratives as a deliberate subversion of the square-jawed Aragorn types which have been known to populate speculative lit. In contrast to Perdido Street Station’s reckless renegade scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and the moody standoffishness of The Scar’s aptly named Bellis Coldwine, Avice is more unambiguously heroic but thankfully no less complex for it. A science fiction protagonist who is neither a fighter nor a scientist, Avice’s perspective is that of a more or less ordinary person trying to survive in extraordinary circumstances. Much of the pleasure in the novel lies in watching her as she rises to the occasion and learns to put that floaker’s chutzpah of hers to good use. Perhaps most interesting is Miéville's exploration of Avice’s liminal status as a colonist, one who is increasingly estranged from her government’s intentions yet essentially an exotic curiosity for the Ariekei – perpetually an outsider wherever she goes.

The Ariekei also are a truly marvelous invention, precisely because they feel so alien to the human reader. Their Language, their morphology, their conception of the world around them seems so foreign that it takes a concentrated effort for the reader to get his or her mind around it initially. To create a race of extraterrestrials that doesn’t feel like a thinly disguised caricature of an Earth culture is a significant accomplishment and, in this case, a virtuoso feat of imaginative prowess. Particularly refreshing is Miéville's avoidance of the “noble savage” archetype many writers refuse to think beyond when creating a sympathetic alien character. The Ariekei’s inability to lie could easily be portrayed as tritely romantic or condescendingly naive in the hands of a lesser writer. Instead, they exhibit a variety of responses to human culture, from fascination (exemplified in their Festival of Lies, where prevarication becomes something of an ontological spectator sport) to deep-seated suspicion. In fact, the novel makes a point of portraying the human colonists as being every bit as inscrutable and other to the Ariekei as the Ariekei are to the humans. In an amusing reversal of the “Earthling exceptionalism” that often crops up in SF contact narratives, it actually takes the Ariekei a little while to realize that human beings are intelligent enough to be capable of communication.

With its tale of colonialist conflict on an alien world, it would be very easy for the book to fall into the type of reductive “humans (typically serving as a stand-in for Western culture) are the bad guys” narrative which has characterized some post-colonial SF. Instead, Miéville aims for something knottier and more complex. The novel unflinchingly, at times apocalyptically, acknowledges the pernicious influence that mercantilist cultures have on indigenous populations. Yet Miéville refuses to accept this exploitative model as the only means by which different cultures can interact or that violent revolt alone is enough to avoid it. Rather, the novel’s climax seems to push for a model of cultural symbiosis. It also acknowledges that, ultimately, such exchanges can only begin with true, reciprocal communication. As a character within the novel points out, interlingual translations are never truly exact. Taking this point to its logical conclusion means that when you learn to speak another tongue, you’re not just learning a medium with which to transmit your own ideas but absorbing ideas which are emic to that culture as well. Embassytown does what speculative fiction manages at its best: it sees this world through distant eyes.