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Embassytown: A Close Reading

by Alastair Gold 

China Mieville’s Embassytown experiments with science fiction tropes in order to examine semiotic and postcolonial ideas. It is set in a colonialembassytown outpost, on a planet called Arieka, which takes its orders from the ruling power Bremen. The indigenes of the planet, the Ariekei or Hosts, speak an idiosyncratic language (called, simply, Language) in which words are accurate representations of their referents and so falsehoods and fantasies cannot be expressed. This Language can only be spoken through the simultaneous iteration of two voices expressing a unified thought and so the humans breed identical twin Ambassadors to facilitate communication between the two species. Upon the arrival of a new type of Ambassador, whose speech is insufficiently unified, the Ariekei fall into a narcotic trance which, by its illusory nature, propels them to react against their purely literal Language, making themselves deaf and embarking upon a wave of apparently thoughtless and disorganized destruction. The novel ends with the Ariekei achieving metaphor, enabling them to speak figuratively and so participate in the colonial society established by the humans. A close reading is both a logical and unsuitable response to Embassytown, given the book’s exploration of the problems caused by communication, interpretation and claims of truth. To propose a single coherent ‘reading’ of a text that constantly denounces linguistic and political objectivity seems fallacious and at the same time inevitable, for the process of interpretation is a necessary component of the act of reading. The difficulty of discerning the general from the particular – the ‘immer’ from the ‘manchmal’, to use the language of the novel – is a concern not only of this web page but also of the text that is its object. This close reading will focus on the ways in which the novel creates ambiguity, and the function this has in its exploration of other themes.

Embassytown is split into eight parts, discounting the Proem and the untitled prologue which describes the build-up to the arrival of “the impossible new Ambassador” (Mieville 4). The title and the contents of the three-part Proem “The Immerser” set up ambiguity as a key component of the novel’s content and form. The disorientating nature of the Proem contributes to Mieville’s cultivation of a world whose meaning is deferred and the reader’s interstitial subject position, to which I shall return. Using a prefatory device such as a Proem implies an expository function largely absent from the text of the Proem itself. The reader is instead plunged in media res into an unfamiliar world described in unfamiliar terms. The tone and style of Mieville’s prose is bizarre, blending elusive neologisms and appropriated idioms. Through its use of this idiosyncratic, defamiliarized language, the condition of homo diaspora, described in the novel, is reproduced, placing the reader in the position of a displaced immerser in an alien land, since a full exposition and explanation of the novelistic heterocosm is denied. The reader confronts new worlds, new systems, new ways of thinking and new Language. As such, the reader is never permitted to identify entirely with the colonizing humans or the Hosts, who remain unfathomable and thus one is made to approach the text consistently with an alienated, defamiliarized suspicion.

Avice, the narrator and protagonist, is by trade an “immerser” - one who traverses the “immer” – taken from the German for “always” – murky realm of space and time that underlies normal, particular worldly, or rather, planetary events. The etymology of Avice is appropriately vague and culturally diffuse. According to the website “2000-NAMES”, Avice comes from “Avicia, a Latin form of Gothic Avagisa…meaning ‘ancestor-hostage’”. Possessing a dual Latin and Teutonic heritage, the word also bears similarities to the French word avis, meaning ‘opinion’, from a vis - ‘to seem’ – and from which the word advice is derived (which reflects her function as an advisor and a spy to various political bodies). The distinction between how something seems and how it truly is frequently addressed in Avice’s narrative. Recalling her formative experiences of immersion, Avice says:

“Somewhere beneath the world’s static-seeming cloud was Embassytown” (32). The world is “static-seeming” for it appears stable and unchanging only because we lack the capacity to appreciate its constant transformation.

The experience is frequently related through terms of semblance: “like lines drawn across space”, “roughly similar to Wasp’s”, “like an original of which we were a scale”. Additionally, the Wreck which is situated, complexly, in the immer can only be made sense of in terms of the particular: “Occasionally it wasn’t there, and sometimes only just” (32-33). The abstract is indescribable, and Avice reiterates the indescribability of the immer numerous times throughout the book. In some respects, the concept of the immer seems to (using ‘seems’ advisedly), evoke the Platonic concept of an inaccessible Realm of Forms, or perhaps the Hegelian idea of the Absolute. In this reading, the immer is as much a conceptual space as a physical hyperspace and semiotically the immer can also represent the gap between the signifier and the signified in language.

The interstice at which the children of Embassytown play represents the convergence of binary oppositions and subject positions in which the novel self-consciously resides. The biorigging technology with which the Ariekei have constructed civilization on Arieka is another manifestation of this convergence and blurring of oppositions. With biorigging, the division between artificial and organic is rendered meaningless because the architecture of the city is alive. As well as the division between artificial and natural types of environment, the division between environment and occupant is likewise blended, as the biorigged landscape acts consciously and emotionally and is thus far more than a disinterested playground for the city’s inhabitants. fujihatavelocity The idea of an interstice corresponds to Mieville’s engagement with post-structuralist theory, in particular to the idea of deferral and différance used by Derrida, which in turn feeds the novel’s treatment of meaning and identity. Deferral, in the Derridean sense, is made manifest in the bifurcation of the first half of the novel into non-chronological episodes distinguished temporally by the chapter headings “Formerly” and “Latterday”.

The reader’s interstitial presence between these past and future narratives recalls Derrida’s assertion of an interval which “must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself, but this interval that constitutes it as present must, by the same token, divide the present in and of itself, thereby also dividing, along with the present, everything that is thought on the basis of the present, that is, in our metaphysical language, every being, and singularly substance or the subject” (Derrida 13).

The present subject position of the narrative and, by implication, of the reader is continually deferred, defined only by the “Formerly” and “Latterday” moments that it is not. The chronological structure of Embassytown forbids the indulgence of linear temporality, as well as reminding the reader of the novel’s novelistic artifice. In this respect, the novel deconstructs itself, signaling the creative shifts the text is making – between “Formerly” and “Latterday”, for example – without recourse to fictitious exposition. It also reflects the dualistic concern of Embassytown, dividing the narrative into emphatically distinct paradigms, just as the Language of the Ariekei can only issue from emphatically separate mouths. As the narrative progresses and the stability of its binary categories, such as the distinction between the humans and the Ariekei and between the twin components of the Ariekei’s speech, is threatened and dissolved, the distinction between “Formerly” and “Latterday” is abandoned, so that the remainder of the novel is entirely "Latterday", and yet the temporality of the various episodes is unclear, which reasserts the novel’s ambiguous and interstitial situation. At one point, Avice directly acknowledges the impossibility of coherent, linear narrative and the collapse of the space between things as they are and things as they are interpreted, saying:

“I admit defeat. I’ve been trying to present these events with a structure. I simply don’t know how everything happened. Perhaps because I didn’t pay proper attention, perhaps because it wasn’t a narrative, but for whatever reasons, it doesn’t want to be what I want to make it” (168).

Thus the novel is itself interstitial, denying "structure", while it deals with interstitial characters, places, concepts and events. The very idea of an Embassy-town suggests an indeterminate existence. “Embassy” signifies the convergence of two cultures, a diplomatic point of contact between differing perspectives; “town” lacks the specific connotations of “city” or “country” that Raymond Williams exposed.

Yet, in the language she uses, Avice persistently tries to conceive herself as occupying a specific subject position that corresponds to her cultural heritage. Many of the chapters in Embassytown begin with sentences constructed around the first person plural, ‘we’, which signifies a collective identity: “When we were young in Embassytown, we played a game…”(7); “We hid the death for days. We were miserable with secrecy” (235); “As well as the Languageless and the SM, for self-mutilated, at first we called the incoming army the Deaf” (323); “We heard strange sounds, and saw vessels rising” (349) etc. Avice’s use of ‘we’ implies a shared cultural consciousness that, returning to Derrida’s discussion of différance, is understood through the establishment of what it is not; i.e. Avice’s ‘we’ necessitates a ‘they’ it exists in contrast with, an other which can be understood as the Ariekei. The Ariekei, like the world, is “static-seeming” in the eyes of the colonizers. Avice states bluntly, as the disorder starts to emerge, that “We thought of Ariekei in terms of stuff from an antique world – we looked at hour Hosts and saw insect-horse-coral-fan things. Those were chimeras of our own baggage” (141). Only Part 9, “The Relief”, begins in the third person, acknowledging the relativity of subject positions as Avice reports what Spanish Dancer says. This passage flirts with the possibility of an alternative historical narrative, from a different subjective perspective. Spanish Dancer’s subsequent account of the development of Ariekei Language echoes Avice’s former preference for the first person plural:

“We were like hunters. We were like plants eating light. The humans made their town in our town like a star in a circle. They made their place like a filament in a flower. We spoke the name of their place, but we know it had another name, sitting in the city like an organ in a body, like a tongue in a mouth” (393).

The dense concentration of similes, all signifying human activity, helps to reproduce the evolution of Language, in response to the human occupation that Spanish Dancer is describing. The evolution of Language is antithetical to the status quo which survives only by maintaining the idea that the subaltern Ariekei are eternally primitive objects “from an antique world”. Scile embodies the colonial perspective, reacting with outrage to Avice’s proposition that “It’s not the Ambassadors’ job to understand the Hosts” (84). For Scile, the Ariekei are subordinate to humans in relations of power. It is for the humans to understand and for the Hosts to be understood. When he suspects an Ariekei cell, led by Surl Tesh-echer, of conspiring to lie he is fearful that the cybernetic equilibrium which accords every thing its place in the colonial hierarchy is at risk. By trying to lie, Scile believes, Surl Tesh-echer wants “to usher in evil” (164). This etiology of “evil” derives from untruths and therefore, for Scile, Hasser and Valdik, Surl Tesh-echer must be assassinated. With plurality of language comes the possibility for alternative interpretations – readings – of reality and thus an overthrow of the established order.

Ironically, in spite of Avice’s efforts to assert her identity, Mieville withholds information about her physical appearance, which prevents the reader from conceiving her existence as anything greater than an ungendered narrative voice. This indeterminacy is strengthened by her ambiguous sexuality, the reader being told early on that, prior to meeting Scile, Avice had “had two husbands and a wife” (18). Avice accepts her indeterminacy, believing it compatible with her life-technique of “floaking” (18). Floaking is immerser slang for the indispensable skill of evading “fundamental responsibilities” (18) and, by implication, the need to define what those “fundamental responsibilities” are or should be and thus define oneself in relation to them. Avice is made truly an ambiguous subject, distinguishing herself from the conservative ideology of Scile, Hasser and Valdik in that she comes to view the Ariekei’s acquisition of lying as a positive development and, with regards to her own peculiar position as a part of Language, says “I don’t want to be a simile anymore…I want to be a metaphor” (345). The initial chaos spread by EzRa, she confesses, “made [her] happy” (187). Chaos and ambiguity ought not to be suppressed but embraced as unavoidable conditions of language and narrative and thus indispensable tools for giving the subaltern a proper voice; for allowing it, truly, to speak.


Works Cited:
Derrida, Jacques. "Differance." Trans. Alan Bass. Margins of Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Print.
Mieville, China. Embassytown. London: Macmillan, 2011. Print.