Novel Review: Embassytown

An exception was the crew, who stared frankly at the Ariekei they had never seen before. Across the room I saw my helmsman and I saw the expression on his face. Once I had heard a theory. It was an attempt to make sense of the fact that no matter how travelled people are, no matter how cosmopolitan, how biotically miscegenated from their homes, they can’t be insouciant at the first sight of any exot race. The theory is that we’re hardwired with the Terre biome, that every glimpse of anything not descended from the original backwater home, our bodies know we should not ever see.

Title: Embassytown
Author: China Miéville
ISBN: 0345524497, 978-0-345-52449-2, 978-0-345-52451-5 (e-book)
First published: 2011.
Available from, and


“You have never spoken before” (338).

In a future era, homo diaspora has taken to the stars and encountered a number of very different alien species. Embassytown exists to facilitate relationships with the Ariekei, an advanced race who look like something out of Lovecraft‘s nightmares. Despite their technological sophistication, they lack a certain quality of imagination. For them, language is thought, and they cannot speak words that do not literally reference a thing. Through the eyes of our narrator, who is a simile in the Ariekei language, we follow the chaos and conflict that develops when a human masters the ability to speak exactly as Embassytown’s aliens Hosts do—a human who can make statements that need not have any connection to the truth.

High Points:

Other writers have imagined aliens with thought patterns and methods of communication that differ from ours, but rarely have they made the unknowable so convincing and comprehensible. Biological tech has appeared in SF before, but few have examined its implications so believably. Even the crossing of an alien landscape contains plausible details often missing from other SF. Otherwordly fauna recognize humans as neither predator nor prey. If you’re interested in SF that plays with original ideas, I heartily recommend Embassytown.

Miéville will lose a few readers who lack interest in theories of language or who simply grow bored with the first hundred pages, but this book really does have a fascinating and memorable payoff.

Low Points:

I’ve always been impressed with Miéville’s ability to describe the fantastic as though he’s looking out his window or walking down the street. The histories and geographies of his worlds simply exist to be referenced. While he hasn’t lost that ability, Embassytown, especially in its early chapters, grows at times ponderous and clumsy in its worldbuilding, teetering heavy with exposition and verbosity.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6 Other books have dealt with the troubles created by interspecies communication and interaction, but Miéville works overtime developing something quite unlike those past explorations.

Imagery: 6/6 The author remains a remarkable wordsmith, particularly when he describes a city that “wasn’t a city anymore,” but “a collection of broken places separated by war without politics or acquisitions, so not really a war at all but something more pathological” filled with mutilated aliens, dead humans, “the stumps of hospitals,” and biotech “gone incompetently feral.”

Story: 5/6. In the middle of this book we have a brilliant Miéville novel, thought-provoking and fascinating. Some readers will beg off before they get that far, and a few others may find the final chapters a bit rushed in their handling of the crises and conflicts that develop.

Characterization: 4/6 For all of Embassytown’s wild inventiveness, its characters, human and otherwise, feel curiously flat. They’re believable, but they lack personal depth.

Emotional Response: 5/6.

Editing: 5/6 This book comes out very soon after The City and the City, and I rather wish it hadn’t. The book needed some revision, particularly in its ponderous first hundred pages.

Overall score: 5/6. Miéville is not a literary author dabbling in genre and denying the results are SF or fantasy; he’s a genre writer whose work the literati need to take seriously.

In total, Embassytown receives 35/42