Prior to his latest novel's release, China Mieville said he was going to do space opera. And to be fair, Embassytown does contain some of the classic elements of that sub-genre: ships that move faster than light without any sort of explanation as to how they can do it, a very large multi-system civilization, and Earth has been lost in the dim reaches of history. But I think it can be argued as well that Embassytown also draws a great deal from the planetary romance subgenre as well, with its emphasis on humans interacting with aliens usually on the alien homeworld, fighting to survive their encounters both with the aliens and with the environment.
But like the best authors, those that stretch beyond the genre elements, Mieville only uses them as a framework and a springboard into a thoughtful consideration of language and communication. While it's something of a science fiction trope that humans have to develop a method of communicating with alien cultures, it generally gets passed over fairly quickly with just a knowing nod ("and after the usual five or six hours of study, the universal translator worked well for us"). But Mieville first imagines the Ariekei (or Hosts as they are colloquially called) as truly alien—that is, they don't think in the way that humans do and so some sort of paradigm shift has to take place either in human thinking or in the aliens, and then he centers that alien-ness in their language. Granted, his very brief descriptions of the aliens highlight their differences: hairy multi-jointed legs that end in hooves, a "giftwing" and a "fanwing" neither of which appear to be useful for flight, and two mouths. But the essential strangeness of the Ariekei is that they speak simultaneously with their two mouths and cannot understand any species that does not also. And while humans can hear the distinct sounds each mouth of the Ariekei makes as it speaks, the Ariekei simply cannot hear two humans speaking simultaneously, so that those humans have to be connected at least empathically. This leads to genetic manipulation by the humas to create ambassadors to the Ariekei, two individuals linked genetically and empathically and scrubbed every day to keep them from growing apart either physically or mentally. Even more interesting, since the Ariekei are "reading" the empathy behind the words being spoken, they are unable to tell lies.
The humans that live on the Ariekei planet are completely dependent on the biomechanical prowess of the Hosts. The atmosphere of the planet is toxic, but the Ariekei use their expertise to create "areoli" zones that contain breathable air for the humans. They also grow pretty much everything they use, from houses to vehicles to furniture and weapons. They even have modified some farms to grow food that the humans can live off of which becomes the primary food source for the humans since they are so far removed from the nearest human worlds.
Mieville's narrator, Avice Benner Cho, acts at first as a guide through the weirdness of the Ariekei world, eventually becoming a simile—performing an action so that the Ariekei have a truth on which to base their comparisons. But as Avice grows older, she falls into politics and learns some of the underpinnings and subtle machinations of the humans that govern her part of the world, detailing them for the reader as she uncovers them. And while the Ariekei are fascinated with the possibility of learning to lie, to take a step beyond just simile, those leaders make a catastrophic mistake which threatens to bring down not just their part of the Ariekes world, but all of the Ariekei civilization.
There are moments in Embassytown where Mieville's descriptive power is evident, mostly in his descriptions of the alien architecture and landscape. But the real thrust of this novel is in the ideas and an exploration of the power of language. And in this exploration, Mieville reminds me of no one so much as Ursula K. Le Guin, especially in The Left Hand of Darkness, as she insists on seeing the details of the differences between human and alien rather than glossing over them as decoration and trope. Of course, such an examination not illuminates the alien, it also brings the human sharply into focus as well. In many ways, the interaction between the characters in Embassytown surpasses that of any other Mieville novel because so much emphasis on the alien forces the human characters to stand out and carry the narrative weight.
The novel's exploration is a delight even though a world is at peril. The aliens are very alien, reminding me of the best of Vernor Vinge and, again, Le Guin. Though the mostly descriptive opening feels plodding as the scene must be set, when the plot starts moving, it rushes at what feels like breakneck speed, making it difficult to set the book down. The resolution is both heart-breaking and exhilarating, maintaining the realistic sensibility that drives the insistence on aliens that really are alien.
Again Mieville demonstrates why his books are always near the top of my to-read and to-find list. Recent months have seen increased discussion of the literary merit and quality of genre fiction. Embassytown demonstrates that, even from the lowest roots, something thoughtful and powerful can arise.