April 26, 2012
Embassytown - China Mieville
China Mieville does overt Science Fiction with aliens and spaceships and everything. Should have been perfect but I found the story terribly difficult to get into. Usually I like being thrown into the deep end with strange words and locations and having to work hard to figure out what is going on. Zero exposition, normally my thing. But Embassytown irritated me with its alien words and strangeness, it feels forced. It reminded me of writers who throw lots of words at the page in an attempt to make something Sci-Fi.
Eventually, after quite a while, I managed to get into the story, which is about aliens being alien on an alien world whilst humans look on, usually baffled. There's a great idea at the core of Embassytown, but as with The City And The City the idea towers above the story. The idea is (look away if you don't want to know) that the aliens need two mouths to speak, two vocal streams at once, from one entity. They can't lie, their Language is the truth. The Language is written down in a mathematical looking fashion looking like fractions hello/there which is cool, and clever. The humans breed twins to talk to the aliens, known as Ambassadors, who talk at the same time and manage to pass as a single entity. And the story deals with big themes about the existence of an entire alien race. There's probably three big ideas in the novel that some authors would have made a trilogy of. But...but...but...
The entire novel felt far too long, it dragged and dragged, and without any beautiful poetic prose to keep me occupied until something happened. I got bored. I wanted the whole thing edited down to at least two thirds of its length. Near the end there is one beautiful moment that was almost worth the trudge, but not quite. It came too late.
It's been a while since I read The Sparrow, but I seem to remember that it covered similar themes and sustained a much greater emotional effect. This type of novel has been done many times before, to stand out it needed great ideas but also cracking storytelling. Instead it was too long and lacking a fresh zing to make it brilliant. I feel disappointed because clearly China is a great writer, he just hasn't written a novel that scorched my brain and made my heart ache and made me rush back to its pages, but instead a novel that just made me nod appreciatively at the cleverness of the ideas and sigh when it was over.