Reading out of my comfort zone: ‘Embassytown’ by China Miéville (2011)


I really do try to be experimental with my reading, but it’s difficult because there are so many books out there and it’s hard to take risks when safe reading can lead to such pleasurable results.

As this blog shows, I usually read within the oddly-titled genre of ‘literary fiction’.  Certainly, in bookshops I’m drawn toward the main ‘Fiction’ shelves and tend to stride straight past crime, science fiction, fantasy and anything that whiffs of non-fiction.  I do think that reading should be about trying new things and being adventurous though, so this week I dipped my toe, metaphorically speaking, into the deep and rich ocean that is fantasy fiction.

Mieville was a good place to start.  He’s won more awards for science fiction and fantasy than you can shake a stick at.  He’s also come highly recommended by readers I deeply respect.  Also, and importantly for me, unlike ‘The Night Circus‘, ‘Under the Skin‘ or ‘Gormenghast‘, other novels I’ve written about on the blog, ‘Embassytown’ is not stocked under general fiction at any bookshop that I know of.  It is genre literature, and proud of it.

‘Embassytown’ is set on a world far far away in a future galaxy.  As far as I could make out, the main characters were human, or at least humanoid, though with a ‘Hunger Games’ Capitol style acceptance of mechanical, synthetic or biological body augmentation.  The main setting is an isolated backwater of a colony where the humans live in peaceful co-existence with their indigenous ‘hosts’, an utterly incomprehensible alien life form with super-advanced technology.

So far, so fantastical.  Where the book really earns its reputation is through the exploration of the hosts’ language.  We’re told that this is a language ‘without signifiers’, it is utterly literal and lying is impossible as ‘language … was speech and thought at once’.  The main action of the novel comes when there is a shocking new development in communication between the humans and the hosts.  Where, previously, trained ‘Ambassadors’ could communicate with the alien population, now something has gone haywire with the basics of language.  When the language goes wrong, so does thought, and some kind of paradigm shift will be required if either race is to survive.

The premise is fascinating and effectively presented through a fictional universe rather than within the recognisable world.  Overall, I had a lot of fun following ideas to conclusions rarely possible in realist fiction.  On the other hand, I was still reminded of why I tend to avoid most fantasy.  While the writing was good, it was also a bit uneven.  ‘Embasssytown’ felt like a book about ideas rather than style and I found the odd phrase or stylistic quirk jarred.  The theories of language were intiguing, but this was a novel which looked at language from the outside, put into the mouths of an alien life-form.  Unlike Atwood’s genre fiction for example, it was not in love with human language in a way which impacted on the very essence of writing itself.  As with all good stories, it is as much about the readers’ own world as about the fiction created, however I found sheer distance of space and time very hard to traverse when it came to bringing the messages home to the here and now.

I plan for ‘Embasssytown’ to be the first of many forays into the genre bookshelves of shops and libraries.  As a self-confessed lover of Gothic novels throughout the centuries, it would be hypercritical of me to avoid the genres it has spawned.  However ‘Embassytown’ has also helped me identify the limits of my comfort zone.  I’m still more content with literary fiction than its genre cousins, but the bookish universe is massive and there is plenty more exploring to be done.

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13 Responses to Reading out of my comfort zone: ‘Embassytown’ by China Miéville (2011)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    My Eldest Child is a huge fan of Mieville but I’ve not read him myself – he does sound intriguing though!

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I’m also planning to read some Mieville – and, like you, am not very comfortable with certain genres. But I’ve occasionally been very pleasantly surprised, so I should stop being such a bloody snob (although it’s not snobbery, since I like certain genres A LOT – such as crime fiction).

    • Ha! I recognise the guilt of a ‘literary fiction’ lover and reader who worries they might be a book snob. My issue is that I read so many classic (including wonderful crime and sci-fi writers like Christie and Zamyatin) that I suspect even my usual genre reading is not really a departure from the norm.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Sounds like you got on pretty well with Mieville. I love him though I have not yet read this particular book. Where will your genre adventure take you next?

    • I’m on the look out for more recommendations! I suppose I could start to browse some of the genre shelves in bookshops and libraries … but I spend far too much time in these buildings already!

      • Stefanie says:

        I totally understand about bookshops and libraries! Have you read Ursula Le Guin? Left Hand of Darkness is the standard recommendation but I suspect you might find The Dispossessed pretty interesting.

      • I don’t recall reading either of those books (though I do know Le Guin’s name, it’s not the kind of name you forget). I also like the idea of branching out – it’s been a very long time since I read a female Science Fiction or Fantasy author.

  4. I second the recommendation of Le Guin. I’m as sniffy as you about genre, Shoshi, only because it can be an excuse for sloppy and derivative clichéd writing – but of course, also house writers of finesse and craft, whose Subject matter is genre. It was Doris Lessing championing SF that made me a little less snooty, and discovering Le Guin

    • I haven’t read any of Lessing’s Sci Fi works and I feel they definitely belong on the reading list. I have a suspicion I have read Ursula Le Guin because I can’t imagine I was able to resist such a wonderful author name, but it would have been years ago so I can’t claim to recall any specifics … maybe I just walked past her books many times in the library. Clearly, next time I’m going to have to stop and read one!

  5. Geoff W says:

    It’s always great to find something outside of our norms! I’m also looking at reading Le Guin because she’s such an icon. I have at least one on my shelf.

  6. Pingback: Reading out of my comfort zone part III: ‘The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick vol. 2’ | Shoshi's Book Blog

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