Language and Monsters

Tumblr_lqgz2wmmlg1qhwx0oNeil Easterbrook on China Miéville's fiction and his philosophy of language, in the LA Review of Books:

The most recent example of science fiction’s aesthetic power is the extraordinary new novel by China Miéville, whose tenth book demonstrates that fiction can be both serious and fun, a light fancy of the imagination and a deep investigation into what makes us human. Miéville is widely known for a string of bestselling and prize-winning novels that splice together elements of fantasy, horror, noir, and science fiction Embassytown is his first unequivocally science fiction text, his least hybridized book yet.

Part space opera and part planetary romance, set in our distant future, Embassytown is the tale of a young woman born and raised in the human enclave on the planet Arieka. Avice Brenner Cho leaves home to become an interstellar sailor, one of the few people capable of negotiating the “immer,” the subspace or hyperspace “altreality” that permits faster-than-light travel. Having met and married Scile, an academic linguist fascinated by the language of the indigenous Ariekei, whom the Embassytowners call “Hosts,” Avice agrees to indulge his curiosity and return to Arieka. The Hosts’ language, always called “Language,” is a very curious phenomenon. Their speech comes in the form of two words spoken simultaneously, something possible because the Ariekei have two mouths. To inscribe Language, the humans present a graphic image, rather like a mathematical fraction, with a numerator (the “cut”) and a denominator (the “turn”), as in the case of the Host named Surl Tesh-echer, which is written as:




While this sort of inscription initially seems a precious affectation, it proves central to Miéville’s thematics.

Host Language has two features. First, the Hosts only recognize it when it is generated by living beings — by conscious minds — so Language generated by a computer, however semantically and syntactically perfect, isn’t even heard, though a broadcast recording of a conscious being is. Second, Language is exclusively literal; only things that are empirically true can be said. Since Language contains no figurative dimension — no irony, no metaphor, no oxymoron — the Ariekei cannot lie. While the Hosts always have polyphony, they do not have polysemy — the two words always have one meaning.

Embassytown is a novel of ideas — a novel about the philosophy of language, about how language is linked to ethics, and about our “biopolis,” the structure of the links between individual humans and the larger human community.