Embassytown / on language

Just finished China Miéville’s Embassytown – and I am simultaneously baffled and intrigued. I love the ideas in the novel (it’s about language, humanity, society and power) – but I’m not quite sure he entirely pulls it off in a novel.

I was trying to work it out as I was finishing it last night: is this not working for me because I’m not getting it, or is it just not working? I think the problem is, because it’s a story about language, it involves an awful lot of telling and much less showing – and that doesn’t make for the greatest fiction.

p.s. spoilers for the novel ahead

At the same time, any novel that includes the comment, ‘“We should have called them OgMa, not EzCal,” Bren said. We looked at him for an explanation. “A god,” he said, “who did sort of the same thing,”’ (p.297) and sends me off to research stories of Gog and Magog for half an hour to try and work out what the author is doing with the reference, before going back to the book wins gold stars from me. I’m still not sure, on the Gog and Magog thing, btw. I assume it relates to the the idea that ‘they’ are rallied by Satan at the time of the apocalypse in Revelation – but I wouldn’t put it past Miéville to be sneaking in a sarcastic reference to the fact that the figures are carried by the Mayor of London in the Lord Mayor’s show, as guardians of the city.

if they can’t speak, can they think? Language for Ariekei was speech and thought at once. Wasn’t it?” (p.316).

The most intriguing idea of the novel, for me, is that one of the key qualities of humanity is the ability to lie. I love the exploration of the fact that you can’t lie if you only use langugage to ‘refer’ rather than ‘signify’ (everybody, off you go to read your Saussure now). As the Ariekei grow and change (and the ambiguity of that on the good/bad scale is one of the things that doesn’t quite break through in the novel, because Avice is our point of entry and holds our sympathy, while Scile doesn’t; and while you get the pain of what happens for the Ariekei to change, you don’t always get a sense that it’s really problematic…) they learn to move from simile to metaphor. A simile is honest about being not-true (the like is key), while a metaphor has to be understood by the hearer as something that is not-true, otherwise it is just a lie.

If it’s true, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, that, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” then all humans have some genius in them – because you have to hold the truth and the lie together in your brain at once. The Ariekei can’t do that, because to speak is to think – there is no way to think something different to what they’re saying. And the dual minds of the Ambassadors reflect the break that must take place in the human mind in order for us to lie.

I feel like even if the novel doesn’t quite work as a really great novel (in the way that The City and The City just is a really great novel), then the way that Embassytown makes your brain spin off into different ideas and reference makes it a great flawed novel. Its idea that language is inherently contradictory, the means of cooperation and coercion (and that we learn it by both means), sends me one way (towards the political), while the idea that once you learn to use metaphor, to lie, you can learn to write, to create script, sends me another. It sends me off to Derrida, to ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, and the wonderful critique of the Phaedrus (in which Plato claims that spoken lanugage is superior to written language) which says, effectively, “But this argument has survived in the words it has because someone wrote it down, dummy” – and I’m sure that Miéville must be doing something with the pharmakós and Derrida’s arguments about pharmakeia-pharmakon-pharmakeus, given the drug addiction element of the story, and why is my copy of Dissemination in Cornwall, goshdarnit, I want to play with this further.

I’m in a reading phase at the moment (as opposed to a watching-things phase) – and Embassytown has sent me on not to more fiction, or even sci-fi (and I do have some William Gibson in the to-read pile), but to non-fiction, to Nick Harkaway’s new book, The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World. I’ve just started, but already it’s pointed out that we read hypertext differently to the way we read plain text (pp. 9 & 47), and asks the question: “[since] the reading brain and the habits of thought that go with it are central to our preset human identity, the question of how this affects us is an important one: if our reading habits change – the written and read word being arguably a defining aspect of our cultural evolution and the formation of each of us as individuals – what change will be wrought on us and our world?” (p.10). Embassytown and Arieka change, dramatically – Miéville seems to suggest for the better – but at what cost, known and unknown? And if we don’t think about it, how do we decide whether this is what we want for our lives and our societies?

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