"Embassytown" by China Mieville (Del Rey, 368 pages, $26)
Leave it to China Mieville, the British creator of fantasy, science fiction and the weird, to write a provocative novel about language, in which a central human character is a living Simile in an alien tongue, and in which thousands of sentient creatures may die because of the way a phrase is pronounced — or isn't pronounced.
Mieville, whose earlier books including the Hugo Award-winning "The City & The City," deposits readers in Embassytown, a human enclave on the distant planet Arieka. The book's narrator, Avice Benner Cho, describes her childhood's first encounter with a native Host:
"The Host came forward with its swaying grace, in complicated articulation. It looked at me, I think: I think the constellation of forking skin that was its lustreless eyes regarded me. It extended and re-clenched a limb."
Mieville does this so well in his world-building: He gives readers just enough information to imagine the otherworldly.
At the request of the Ariekei, the girl Avice becomes a Simile in their language: She acts out a role assigned to her.
Through tedious trial and error, humans have barely learned to communicate with the Hosts. A pair of synced humans, usually clones, must speak their individual halves of a phrase simultaneously to be understood by the Ariekei. Otherwise, their sounds are perceived as noise. Mieville has devised a typographical convention to represent such speech. It looks like a fraction, with both the numerator and denominator being words.
In the main action of the tale, Avice has returned to Embassytown. She's brought a husband, Scile, a linguist who becomes fascinated with Ariekei speech. A talented free agent and a minor local legend as a living Simile, Avice can go where she pleases, and is drawn into the intrigues of the diplomatic human community.
The Ariekei appear to be biologically hard-wired for honesty in their speech. Their big public entertainment, evolved from their contact with humans, is a Festival of Lies, in which they make and celebrate strenuous attempts to say something slightly untrue, like calling a yellow object "yellow-beige."
A new Ambassador — the paired humans who speak the doubled Ariekei language — is introduced in Embassytown. But EzRa is comprised of two different- looking men. When EzRa begins speaking to the Ariekei, it has an extraordinary effect: They become addicted to hearing EzRa's voice. The content of the new Ambassador's speech is irrelevant; the sounds EzRa makes are narcotic to the Ariekei. This destabilizes their world. The human community destabilizes, too. Avice, in league with some Ariekei and half of a former Ambassador, must decide which possible solution she will support.
Like those early human visitors to Arieka, I feel incapable of describing in this short space the richness of the world Mieville has created and the depth of the questions he poses. "Embassytown" is the most engrossing book I've read this year, and the latest evidence that brilliant, challenging, rewarding writing of the highest order is just as likely to be found in the section labeled Science Fiction as the one marked Literature.