Monday, May 16, 2011

The girl who ate what was given her

"A simile," he said, "is true because you say so. It's a persuasion: this is like that. That's not enough for it anymore. Similes aren't enough." He stared. "It wants to make you a kind of lie. To change everything.

"Simile spells an argument out: it's ongoing, explicit, truth-making. You don't need . . . logos, they used to call it. Judgement. You don't need to . . . to link incommensurables. Unlike if you claim: 'This is that.' When it patently is not. That's what we do. That's what we call 'reason,' that exchange, metaphor. That lying. The world becomes a lie. That's what Surl Tesh-echer wants. To bring in a lie." He spoke very calmly. "It wants to usher in evil."

As of this writing, Embassytown is my favourite China Miéville novel, but then, I once studied linguistics and philosophy, and being that I work as an editor, it should go without saying that I'm a bit of a language geek, and I would happily discuss with you why a given metaphor is more effective and/or appropriate than a simple simile, or vice versa, so, these factors taken together, it's no wonder Embassytown rocks my world.

Embassytown is about Avice Benner Cho, who returns to her hometown, on a planet that humans (which she is one) colonized. The humans coexist with the Ariekei, though communication is difficult given the complex Ariekei language (more on this later) (and it seems that the humans benefit more from their trade relationship than vice versa).

Avice grew up wanting to leave, and then she did. She trained as an immernaut and travelled subspace as crew on ships delivering passengers (usually in sopor) and cargo.

The steersperson took us close to Wreck. It was hard to see. It looked at first like lines drawn across space, then was briefly, shabbily corporeal. It ebbed and flowed in solidity. It was many hundreds of metres across. It rotated, all its extrusions moving, each on its own schedule, its coagulated-teardrops-and-girder-filigree shape spinning complexly.

Wreck's architecture was roughly similar to Wasp's, but it was antiquated, and it seemed many times our dimensions. It was like an original of which we were a scale model, until abruptly it altered its planes and became small or far off. Occasionally it wasn't there, and sometimes only just.

All this backstory to demonstrate that Embassytown is far, far away, the last outpost, a final frontier. As a colony under Bremen's control in geopolitical terms, it functioned according to its own rules, much like the New World operated a little differently than its European masters might've known or liked.

So Avice goes back to Embassytown, with her husband, a linguist who is fascinated by the Language of the Ariekei. The Ariekei are insect-like, winged and hoofed, with eyestalks. They speak with two simultaneous voices.

Their language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for the word, can be seen.

In this linguistic system, thoughts cannot precede words, indeed they cannot be thought without having the words for them. The Ariekei need similes to express their reality. They need to be able to say what something is like. If they can express it, it is a truth. They are unable to lie.

And then the new Ambassador shows up, and says something in Language, causing what can only be called a diplomatic incident. But, oh, just wait and see.

(I've read several reviews of Embassytown that are critical of it taking so long before the story gets started. For me, these first 100+ pages of world-building are the richest, and would be worth reading even if nothing followed. But maybe you have to have sat, and appreciated, a class on the philosophy of language to totally get that.)

I like to think of this novel as being all about linguistics.

"Words don't signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language?"

It takes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to the extreme. It's about linguistic relativity and Wittgenstein. And about Lakoff:

Metaphor has been seen within the Western scientific tradition as purely a linguistic construction. The essential thrust of Lakoff's work has been the argument that metaphors are primarily a conceptual construction, and indeed are central to the development of thought.

So, if an alien (Arieke) speaks a language (Language) and there's no one there to hear it, does it still think? What if the alien can't hear itself speak, can't hear itself think? Then there are no words, no thoughts, and reality collapses.

Avice when she was young herself was made a simile and incorporated into the language. Her assimileation (ooh, I just made that up!) was scripted or planned or faintly conceived, and then recounted. There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a time. Avice was the girl who ate what was given her. It's never entirely clear what the Ariekei meant by her, by the simile of her, and Avice comes to wonder: if she changes her experiential truth, can she change the Ariekei's reality?

There's this wonderful Doctor Who–type moment toward the end that's a life-affirming vindication of what it is to be alien (cognitively, politically) and joy that, yes, good sense has prevailed, see, if only people would (could) just talk to each other, communication is brilliant, words are more powerful than any weapons, and more menacing: You get to live. It's a reward, but also a sentence.



Ten things about China. (Are you paying attention, Steven Moffat? Really, Neil Gaiman's Doctor Who episode was almost as disappointing as Gaiman himself is overrated. But China Miéville, his monsters — big scary, political monsters — would make the Doctor run.)
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