After reading "Embassytown", Hugo nominee for 2012 and the latest offering from one of the foremost writers of what has become known as the “New Weird”, I realize now that this kind of writing, beautiful as it is, will never breach the sphere of popular culture. Just as Neal Stephenson’s work has languished in the depths of hollywood and drifting along the meniscus of almost-there, so too I predict this is what will happen to Mr. Mieville’s oeuvre, an author highly respected in certain hardcore circles, with a name for himself as an author who specializes in a difficult genre, but not much more. No “Time Traveler’s Wife”, no “American Gods”, no “Song of Ice and Fire”. It’s a shame, but not necessarily the tragedy it sounds like.
It took me around 5 books to finally understand the feeling that had been festering inside of me as to what I really thought of Mieville’s overall style. I was taken aback at first by the sheer level of literacy involved, really the kind of prose you’d expect from an older-style masterwork. Perhaps it’s no surprise, the progenitor author of weird fiction, HP Lovecraft, was known as much for his verbosity as he was for the hideous monsters he described on paper.
"Embassytown", for all intents and purposes, reads like the most convoluted pitch for a novel ever. Reading a summary of the book would put the late, great Ian M Banks to shame, even David Brin would have to tip his hat to the convoluted nature of a Mieville plotline. Suffice to say, there are aliens, there’s a lot of biological tech, and it’s a world so profoundly inhuman that it’s a marvel that the novel even worked at all. On a purely technical level it bears all of the Mieville trademarks, excellent prose, dramatic, tremendously flawed characters, a plot so meticulous it boggles the mind to think of what could have brought it to fruition in his mind.
This is an old style of science fiction, a story that has a human element to it, but is so strongly impelled by the plot that most characters are simply pulled along with it. And considering some of his characters like Bellis Coldwine and Avice Benner Cho, that’s saying something. It’s a story that tells you things, whether you like it or not. You’re going to sit there and watch this scene, you’re gonna take this lengthy description where I show you something (beautifully, mind you), and you’re going to like it. The world is alive, pay it the respect it deserves.
At time it’s a hard slog to get through a Mieville novel. Entire passages become dedicated to setting up the scene, or half a chapter will be given over to showing a character’s backstory.
In one instance, an entire chapter is given over to describing the backstory of an incidental character, an egyptian clay servant familiar made to work as a servant for the honored dead in the afterlife. The character then stages a rebellion in the afterlife, kills all the Egyptian gods, sending them essentially to the after-afterlife, then trudges through every other afterlife (Norse, Hellenic, Christian) for a thousand years until it at last emerges into modern England and becomes the head of a movement to create a working Union for the magical familiars of the world. It didn’t need to be said, in any other novel it probably wouldn’t have been said, yet it’s such a novel and weird concept that one can’t help but give him a slow golf clap once finished.
So then if it’s afflicted by all these issues and deficiencies, why has his work consistently been nominated for the Hugo (some might say been robbed) and lost? Mieville’s work has reached this alter state where the confluence of multiple aspects of writing have been so utterly perfected that the end product is something that cannot be helped but to be admired. This was supposed to be a review of "Embassytown", but really, "Embassytown" just a further exploration of his style along the same insanely complex path of world-building that led to his Bas-Lag trilogy. All 3 books were nominated for the Hugo, none won,
It’s the spirit of genre fiction that drives these books forward. In every page, in every description, there’s a craft to everything that speaks of a mind bursting with imagination that most authors, even in their wildest works, could never hope to match. Mieville is well known for including cultural and societal dilemmas in his work, his Bas-Lag trilogy is notably critical of the evils of imperialism from the crime and woes of government it spawns, to the way it destroys foreign cultures and perpetuates a cycle of violence and hatred, the aftereffects of which we’re seeing in the world right now. Discovery is not always a good thing, and his work frequently delves into the consequences of new thought, be it the introduction of lying to a species for which such a thing is incomprehensible, to a single person’s ability to harness a power that can alter possibility itself.
So, what rating would I give "Embassytown"? It’s a novel whose genre alone is almost impossible to categorize. It’s a work of science fiction, to be sure, but it’s also a work of semiotic analysis, city development and foreign relations. It’s a remarkably complex story where you’ll need a dictionary or two just to fully understand exactly what he’s describing. It’s a novel of esoteric ideas that makes no compromises for the reader who isn’t willing to buckle down, take their time and accept the strange ride.
That is "Embassytown" in a nutshell.