Mieville, China -- Embassytown

I'm pretty sure this novel only succeeds because of a trick. But it's a successful trick, and that counts. The trick is: the story is about language and metaphor, which means that every damn thing it does which is metaphorical is thematically appropriate and refers back to everything else just by that fact. It's a trick so damn brilliant that I'd steal it immediately, except now it's been done, and this is the book that did it.

Avice Benner Cho (never referred to as "ABC", but see above) grows up in a small human colony on the edge of known space. The humans are guests of, and represent humanity to, the native sentients: a species whose Language is so damn weird that they can't understand anybody else's. Humans can understand the Hosts' Language just fine -- AI translation handles that sort of thing easily. Humans can learn to speak it, too... sort of.

I will not spoil the details of the setup, although they are not a central mystery; it's all laid out within a couple of chapters. It is, nonetheless, nicely paced. The lesson of Language comes after we know of Avice's adulthood, her training as an astrogator, her flight from her home planet, marriage, and return -- all of which come after the incident in her childhood which makes her a simile in Language. The Hosts want to be able to say: "like the girl who was hurt in darkness, and ate what was given her." Avice agrees to be that girl. Much later, after she grows up and leaves and gets married and returns, everything goes wrong.

This is the classic linguistic SF story, and the classic first-contact SF story, and the what-these-aliens-really-need SF story, and the "Julian Jaynes just blew my mind and I have to write SF now" story. You can't do any of those barefaced any more (nobody ever did the Jaynes thing right in the first place, as far as I know) -- but, as I said, this book has a trick. It doesn't matter that they've been done. That's just part of the simile. The author will rub it in your face if you don't notice. It's unclear whether AIs are really sentient -- but it's impolite to ask. Fearing corruption of the Hosts, a character commits assault -- screaming about lies and the Garden of Eden. Threatened by a mindless horde of mindless enemies, humans cower indoors -- watching 20th-century zombie movies. (They're like the girl who was hurt in darkness... right?)

Mieville leashes his love of transgressive creepiness for this one. Sure, hyperspace is weird-ass land, and Host biotechnology could give Perimal Darkling a run for its interdefinitionality, but it's restrained -- part of a consistent background, not a distraction from the plot. Between this and The City... I now have faith that he knows when to put a cork in it. (Kraken is Mieville popping the cork out. Iron Council was him not being able to find it.) The book is fairly grim, and effectively terrifying towards the end, but not ultimately bleak. So, in short, I recommend this one.

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