In a review for the New Enquiry in May 2011, W. Andrew Sheapeard deemed Embassytown to be a ‘post-colonial soap opera’. Certainly, at the core of Mièville’s work there lies a concern with the concept of cultural exchange; or, as Sheapeard so pertinently put it, ‘the ways in which contact with the foreign inevitably changes both parties for better and for worse’. However, though the novel offers a colonialist conflict, Mièville himself claims it to be far more than a mere regurgitation of the ‘humans (standing in for Western culture) over aliens (emblematic of the subjugated other)’ that pervades much of post-colonial literature. The novel does offer, however, a powerful evocation of the potentially harmful effect of the outside influences and ideas of a colonising, mercantilist culture on a native population; in this case, the effects of a new way of thinking and communicating on the Ariekei.
The mysterious Ariekei are irrefutably representative of the concept of otherness. Despite offering broad descriptions of alien architecture and technology – Mièville’s partiality for neologisms is evident from the novel’s outset – the author remains consciously vague on the topic of alien anatomy. His description of the Ariekei stretches only so far as to deem them ‘insect-horse-coral-fan type things’. In contrast to the more corporeal main character, the Ariekei remain an ambiguous abstraction; this almost impossible indistinctness renders them unidentifiable to a human reader. Crucially, they are difference, in whatever form it may manifest itself.
In creating the Ariekei, Mièville has shrewdly avoided catering to culturally constructed notions of extra terrestrial life.
The Ariekei require ‘similes’, because their own language does not permit them to lie. In their world, the truth of the words and the speech itself are indistinguishable. As Mièville states ‘for Hosts, speech was thought... without language for things they didn't exist’. This, of course, contradicts the nature of language as we know it as a vehicle for invention and there is an elegiac irony that their double language, which is inseparable from their world, offers no capacity for duplicity.
Scile tries his utmost to protect the native population of Embassytown from losing the very thing that, he believes, keeps their race culturally unique and separate from human ways of thinking. Indeed, he sees the loss of language as something of a ‘fall from paradise’ for the Ariekei, associating lying with evil when he says ‘that’s what Surl Tesh-echer wants. To bring in a lie…it wants to usher in evil.’ However, Scile’s attempts to keep the culture of the colonized away from the colonizer prove impossible; events like the Festival of Lies bring the two together and allow humans to impact on Ariekei traditions, and vice versa. No matter how much Scile may want to keep the Ariekei away from the ideas of his own culture, it is proved impossible, demonstrating the way in which a clash of cultures in such a contained space will inevitably have an irreversible effect on each other’s ancient ways of lives.
Embassytown was Mièville’s sixth novel.
Indeed, it is perhaps easy to romanticise the Ariekei as innocent and naïve, due to their seeming ‘fall’ from a place in which lying is not possible, and everything that is spoken must be based on reality. However, Mieville’s presentation of the mysterious Hosts is not nearly so simple, as they often seem suspicious of and fascinated by certain aspects of human tradition. Although the Hosts are a race completely unlike our own, not only biologically but also in the way that they think and see the world, it is clear that the human invaders are as ‘other’ to them as the Ariekei are to the humans. They are not innocent children; rather they are a race just as intelligent, if not more so, than those who are apparently colonising them.It is difficult, therefore, to see them in a completely powerless position.
At the novel’s outset, the relationship between the Ariekei and the Bremen Empire appears relatively equal, due to the different advantages held by each; the humans have the ability to travel and trade, whilst the Ariekei have advanced biotechnology. However, there is an unpredictable and complex power-shift after the Empire send EzRa, the ‘god-drug’ to whom the Ariekei become helplessly addicted; a move reminiscent, perhaps, of the role played by opiates in the history of imperialism. The Ariekei become dependent on the voice of EzRa, arguably putting them under the control of humans. However, the Ariekei return to be passively bought under control, as demonstrated by the way in which many take matters into their own hands and remove their fanwings; rendering useless the outside drug bought into their native population.
In Embassytown Mièville offers something far more complex than a simplistically allegorical tale of colonial conflict. Certainly, the novel acknowledges the insidious influence that colonial cultures can have on indigenous populations but, as sci-fi author James Lovegrove, author of The Age of Odin, claims, ‘what emerges from the wordplay and exotic drama is an argument for tolerance; the alien, Mièville tells us, is not to be shunned but interpreted, emphasised with and, where possible, embraced’.