Book Review 2011: Embassytown

Avice Benner Cho thought she was off and away from the strange, distant colony of Embassytown forever. After a difficult upbringing, she became an immerser, directing ships from planet to planet. Her home started to become a memory.
But then, in the company of a husband eager to see it, she returns to her home planet, and the titular city of her birth, in time to witness, participate and influence a true revolution of ideas–a revolution in the language of an entire species.
Such is the Matter of Embassytown, the latest novel from China Mieville. An ambitious novel, Mieville plays hard and long with the idea of language and the how it influences thinking, and vice versa. His invented species the Hosts, the Ariekei, have a peculiar language. It is spoken with two mouths, is not understood by the Ariekei unless spoken by living beings, and is not generally understood or accepted unless it tells something true.
In order to get themselves understood by the Hosts, pairs of human clones are raised together to the point their thoughts harmonize, and they are as physically identical as possible. These pairs, then, can be understood by the Ariekei. We meet several Ambassadors, and we see what happens when a single one of a pair is lost.
The plot of the novel kicks into high gear when Bremen, the planet responsible for the Embassytown colony sends something novel–EzRa, a pair of non-identical twins that, nonetheless, can harmonize their thoughts and speech patterns so that they can be understood by the Ariekei. This paradoxical pair, however, proves to be something that the Ariekei at first are delighted by, and then, finally, given how language and reality are bound together, start to destroy the foundations of their language, and the Ariekei themselves.
There is much more idea-gathering in the novel. Avice, in her youth, became a simile, a living part of the Ariekei language in a way that reminded me of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Darmok. Upon returning to the planet, she meets others who are in the same unique position, living ideas in the Ariekei language. The city is a living city, with its biotechnology a slightly underexplored aspect until that technology starts to fail in the wake of EzRa.
You might notice I have left something out in this spread of ideas and plot: heart. While the ideas are amazing in Embassytown, and the prose the strong and clear and uncompromising stuff one expects from a Mieville novel, the real weakness in this bounty is the characters. The characters are two-dimensional, at best, never gaining real emotional depth, growth or focus. We never emotionally get a handle on Avice and her husband’s marriage, especially when it stops running smoothly. The characters move without real conviction. Not even our narrator, Avice, gives us real insight into her feelings.
It is a real pity. With more emotional resonance from the characters, this novel could have gone from being extremely good and interesting to something of an even higher order. And reading it, I could feel the sense that Mieville was trying to reach that highest tier. As it stands, this is a strong example of science fiction and should be read by anyone interested in science fiction today, but it doesn’t quite reach its ambitions.