Refiguring fiction

Embassytown is perhaps China Miéville’s most self-consciously literary novel, as well as a classic sci-fi space opera set in the distant future on a planet at the edge of mapped space, Areika. The book’s title comes from the name of the enclave inhabited by the human colonists within the larger city that they share with the native Areikei, referred to by humans as ‘Hosts’.

Embassytown brings Miéville’s longstanding interest in the workings of language itself into close focus, while other characteristic concerns take a different shape. The politics of capitalist oppression, so vividly explored in his Bas-Lag novels – Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002) and Iron Council (2004) – are backgrounded, and although the futuristic setting provides a perfect backdrop for interrogating colonialism and the workings of empire in an inter-galactic human civilisation, the novel’s approach to these issues is subtle.

Gender, particularly the intersection between sexism and other power relations, is a major concern in Miéville’s other books. In Iron Council, for instance, the underclasses of Bas-Lag are forced to make difficult alliances across deeply ingrained lines of hostility or misunderstanding in order to overthrow their masters. One of the most moving examples is the coalition between the railway workers struggling for better working conditions and the women sex workers accompanying them. The rallying cry of the striking prostitutes, ‘No pay, no lay!’ is taken up by the railway workers, who refuse to lay the railway lines in a knowing illustration of their mutual interests.

With her cool, cynical voice, Avice, Embassy-town’s narrator, recalls another of Miéville’s strong female characters, linguist-turned-spy Bellis Coldwine from The Scar. But Avice is somehow strangely ungendered. In Embassytown, Miéville imagines a virtually post-gender world, a society that has transcended patriarchy. The difference of gender seems to be displaced or flattened for a focus exclusively on the radical otherness of alien races. The Areikei are genderless, and other alien species inhabiting the planet appear to be multi-gendered.

Although gender oppression has mysteriously all but disappeared from human society, one bizarre scene at the heart of the novel presents a troubling image of sexual power relations. As a child, Avice is forced to take part in an elaborate ritual with the Areikei which requires a human girl to be injured and forced to ‘eat what she was given’ in a performance with sacrificial overtones and echoes of sexual violence. Why is this ritual necessary, and what is it for? What are we to make of the way that the resolution achieved at the end of the novel, with its optimistic model of understanding between humans and alien ‘Others’, is predicated on the unacknowledged suffering of a girl child?

While the Areikei are utterly alien in a physiological sense – they move on hooves, stare with multiple eyes on stalks, and enjoy a biological connection with a built environment that is constructed from living cellular material – their most important distinction is their Language (capitalised throughout), seemingly unique among the sentient life forms in this widely mapped universe.

In something approaching the perfected discourse of Adam before the Fall, words in Language express a precise continuity with the things they represent. They aren’t separable from the concepts they evoke and so, in this sense, thought itself is not separate from Language.

‘It’s impossible,’ as Avice’s linguist husband Scile says in wonderment, using one of Miéville’s favourite words.

This form of speech overcomes what Scile describes as ‘the tragedy of language’, the inability of words to convey the richness of experience. After their second meeting (and second failed attempt at sex), Avice tries to explain to Scile how words aren’t capable of expressing travel through the immer, an alternative space-time continuum that humans navigate at speeds faster than light. Scile teases her, arguing that ‘our asymptotic efforts’ at using words ‘aren’t nothing’. Like the line on a graph that approaches but never meets a point, human language can’t overcome the differences between subjective experiences. In a novel set in a universe where unimaginably vast distances can be crossed, and profound differences of subjectivity are negotiated in contact with alien species, a delicate pathos resides in the idea that the emotional distance between people, even (and especially) between lovers, is the most difficult and painful gulf to navigate.

Because thought is inseparable from Language for the Areikei, they are unable to lie, for they can’t express anything that exists in contradiction with reality, and this adds to their pre-lapsarian innocence. To articulate a new idea, a novel point of comparison, the Areikei must enact it: the idea can only be thought in the vaguest of ways before it is made real. Thus, a huge rock on the outskirts of the city was once split in two and then joined back together so that the Areikei could say that something else was similar. The rock exists in the landscape as a permanent, material figure of speech.

Most of the Similes the Areikei are interested in making do not, however, involve inanimate objects but human beings. The reason isn’t clear but perhaps relates to how humans themselves have introduced so many new concepts into their society.

Simile, the figure of speech in which one thing is said be ‘like’ another, has a special place in Miéville’s writing. It was his inventive, grotesque similes that first caught my attention when I picked up The Scar several years ago, with a description of a sinister monster of the deep moving swiftly ‘like gore falling from a wound’, a phrase both repulsive and evocatively apt. It stretches the mind to imagine exactly how gore might fall from a wound (and my imagination very quickly stops, not wanting to go there), and then to put that uncomfortable image together with something living, something that might move in that way.

Miéville’s mode of fiction, imagining strange worlds with some figurative relationship to our own, moves on a narrative level between simile, metaphor and allegory. The shifts are always accompanied by a heightened sense of the work involved in crafting the figures, the lines of association, disassociation and productive estrangement involved in any imaginative comparison of one thing with another. Embassytown, with a plot that plays out philosophical questions about language, communication and the meaning of narration, asks to be read with special attention to its own figures of speech and dramas of signification.

The Simile involving Avice is initiated when the Hosts need to make a certain argumentative point by comparison, as Bren, a former ‘Ambassador’ to the Areikei, explains. But ‘the events’ the Simile describes haven’t happened – they have only been imagined, ‘sort of’, so they need to be enacted to make the point ‘speakable’. Bren suggests Avice for the role, having known her vaguely when she was even younger.

‘It’ll hurt,’ he tells her, ‘And it won’t be nice. But I promise you’ll be alright.’ She is offered not only money but also the prospect of securing political credit vital to her later career in life. Her consent is sought in the most tokenistic of ways.

Bren takes her to the Hosts one night in a derelict part of the human town, and leaves her alone with them in an abandoned restaurant. Here, surrounded by many Areikei, she becomes what they refer to as ‘the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her’. The concept is apparently untranslatable, although various glosses on it are offered later.

Avice describes the experience in a roundabout way using a rhetorical device called litotes, a term rich with irony and stoic understatement that affirms something by negating its opposite: it ‘wasn’t by any means the worst thing I’ve ever suffered, or the most painful, or the most disgusting’. The tone of Avice’s account is hard to pin down, made slippery by her evasive negatives and partial revelations. While she has learned adult words for what she experienced, she never reveals her feelings, or suggests that she has come to terms with the emotional consequences of something that is never called ‘trauma’ but looks a lot like abuse.

‘I know now to call what I did then dissociating,’ she says, in a passage rich with understated, half-acknowledged emotional pain. ‘I watched it all, myself included.’ Later in life, the memory of ‘child-me in that restaurant’ is something she is forced to ‘suppress’ when aliens gather around her in order to use her Simile in their speech.

In the days after the experience, she takes refuge in a kind of bravado around her friends. ‘I showed them my bruises,’ she says, in the first indication of how much physical pain was involved. She recites her story for them, although the details are withheld from the reader.

When she is older, she joins a loose social group of other Similes with a mixture of curiosity and repulsion. The Similes feel a perverse pride in their own objectified status as pieces of language and their place in a hierarchy of tropes. ‘She’s just bitter because she doesn’t get called very often. Her simile’s too recondite,’ one of them explains to Avice, gossiping about their peers. ‘He’s less a simile than an example, honestly. And he knows it.’

Part of Avice’s informal initiation into the group is the recitation of her experience, a public testimonial:

When it was my turn, I told my new companions about the restaurant, and the things I ate, and it was unpleasant enough, what had happened, that I accrued some credibility … ‘Welcome home,’ said someone quietly. I hated that and stopped policing my expressions, made sure they could see that I hated it. And I hated that when he took his own turn, described terrible things done to enLanguage him, Hasser, who had been opened and closed again, modulated his voice and timed his delivery and turned it, true as it was, into a story.

Avice appears to feel that she diminishes her experience by forcing it into whatever narrative vocabulary is necessary to make it recognisable to her audience, and holds Hasser in contempt for doing the same. We, the readers, aren’t offered this kind of conventional ‘story’ but in context it seems as though the elliptic version we receive is somehow more authentic. The events in the restaurant gain their nightmarish potency through what is left unexplained, withheld, especially in counterpoint with the descriptive precision of other narrative elements.

But the cost in narrative terms is that we never really understand how Avice describes her experience to herself, beyond a set of euphemisms and evasions that suggest a rhetoric of denial.

Avice is sickened by the Similes’ obsession with their own linguistic status, and yet feels a compulsion to return again and again, to hear the ‘unpleasant’ stories of the others, to be recognised as one of them. She’s an intelligent, extraordinarily self-aware narrator, and yet can’t account for her decision to go back. While her motivations remain opaque to her, her compulsion to return suggests that she is processing the trauma of her experience without even knowing it and her inability to parse her own impulse seems like an aporia within the narrative, a thing the story somehow can’t explain to itself.

Without giving away too much of the ending, it becomes a matter of life and death for the Areikei to learn how to use metaphor, how to lie, and how to recognise human beings as thinking, feeling subjects – and Avice, the girl who was hurt in the dark, is the human who teaches them. She uses her own status as Simile – and the authority she derives from it – as a base from which to communicate with the aliens, and pushes them from using simile to uttering metaphor: a kind of lie, in that it doesn’t say one thing is ‘like’ another, but proposes identity between the terms of comparison.

At stake is not only the necessary transformation of alien Language, but a mutual recognition, however partial. In a key scene, Avice engages in an intense language lesson with an Areikei called ‘Spanish Dancer’ (named because its markings look like a flamenco skirt). She makes it transition from saying ‘I’m like you’ to saying ‘I am you.’ This takes unthinkable effort.

We could read the moment as Avice constructing for herself a new relationship to the traumatic fact of being ‘enLanguaged’ in that she retranslates herself – and remakes the significance of what she stands for – when she makes herself a metaphor. Avice speaks from a position of power as a Simile and uses it to destroy and remake the very language of which she is a piece.

When Spanish Dancer can say ‘I am you’ and mean it, the creature restructures its relationship to language and also assumes identification with her. Spanish Dancer takes on an affinity with Avice that goes beyond being ‘like’ her, and recognises something in common. They achieve sympathy. It’s a moving moment – and yet I found myself waiting for something more. Waiting, precisely, for Spanish Dancer to see – now that it’s understood that she is like it – that the girl who was hurt in the restaurant wasn’t an unthinking animal, but a feeling subject. What would be the ethical consequences of that recognition?

But that is a question the narrative leaves unanswered. This made it difficult for me to accept the optimistic ending of the novel, for I was haunted by an image of the little girl alone in pain in the dark. ‘History is what hurts,’ as Fredric Jameson once wrote. Violence, suffering, sacrifice – these things might be necessary in the cause of forging new relationships to language, to others, to ourselves. But we are left wondering what might be possible if we called these things by their names, whatever those names might be in a new language that tried to account for the experience of Others – what it might look like for the alien to say ‘Spanish Dancer is the girl who was hurt,’ and also recognise that, in order to say that, a girl had to be hurt.


Kirsten Tranter is a Sydney writer and author of The Legacy, a novel.
© Kirsten Tranter
Overland 204-spring 2011, pp. 50–54

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Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten Tranter is a literary critic and the author of three novels, Hold, A Common Loss and The Legacy. She was a co-founder of the Stella Prize, and teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley.

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