China Miéville, Embassytown (2011)
The rumour before publication was that Embassytown would be China Miéville’s first proper oray into science fiction; and, technically, it is – but Miéville is a fantasy writer at heart, and setting a novel on a planet in deep space with aliens hasn’t changed the essential feel of his work. Our narrator is Avice Benner Cho, a human native of Embassytown, which lies on a world whose indigenous species are known as Hosts. The Hosts can only understand their own language, and even then only if it’s spoken by a sentient being; as the Hosts have two mouths which they use simultaneously, humans communicate with Hosts through specially-bred clone pairs called Ambassadors. The start of the novel sees the arrival in Embassytown of a new Ambassador named EzRa who are, uniquely and impossibly, not clones – and when they address the Hosts, they start a change of events that will lead to all-out war.
Embassytown may not represent a dramatic shift in genre for Miéville, but it is his first novel in quite some time not to be set at least partly on present-day Earth, and here things do feel different. I’m thinking in particular back to Perdido Street Station; granted, it’s a good ten years since I read that book, but I remember it glorying in its own strangeness. Embassytown is more subdued and remote: partly this is a function of its narrator, who admits that she’s not naturally one for the limelight; and Avice’s voice remains correspondingly cool and measured throughout. But it’s also appropriate to the story Miéville is telling, as it concerns a species and mode of communication which are so very inscrutable.
Yet, even though I recongnise its importance, that distancing effect still stops me from really engaging with the novel. There’s certainly some interesting fantasy in there: for example, the Hosts cannot lie, even to make metaphors; they can use similes, but have to enact the object of comparison first – and they can involve humans, including Avice herself. However, mostly, I find the issues around Hosts and their language too abstract to really work as the key emotional anchor for the story; and that is what puts Embassytown in the lower tier of Miéville’s works for me.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.
Kat Brown, ‘A Marvellous Party’ (2011)
This new story from Shortfire Press concerns Adie, whose boyfriend Simon breaks up with her on a railway-station platform just as they were about to go on holiday for Christmas. He boards the train, and she returns dejectedly to her flat – where her friend Becca invites Adie to a party that might just turn her life around. There’s some neat writing here, as Kat Brown creates an atmosphere very efficiently, with a few choice details; whether it’s life in Adie’s flat (‘John [her flatmate] dropped four Nurofen into a carton of orange juice’), or the party itself:
Glazed middle managers buzzed around a beige buffet, and Becca was absorbed almost immediately by a cloud of sequins and novelty jumpers. Adie took a glass of festively disgusting red wine and was swept into conversation by a group who spoke only in buzzwords.
Brown won this month’s Literary Death Match in London with ‘A Marvellous Party’; it’s not hard to see why, and I imagine that the story works just as well read aloud as it does on the page.
Jess Hyslop, ‘Augury’ (2011)
Another new Shortfire Press piece, in this case one that won its author Cambridge University’s Quiller-Couch prize for creative writing – again, it’s clear why. Jess Hyslop takes us to Nazi-occupied Guernsey, where Peter Davies gets by after a German soldier shot him in the leg; he only survived because his neighbour, Anne Brehaut, found him and took him in – not that Anne’s blind husband Louis was keen on having a man in the house who could see her when he himself couldn’t. Now, Peter fixates on the Brehauts’ shed, where he’s sure they’re keeping a bird; or perhaps he’s really fixating on Anne.
Peter Davies comes to life as an ambiguous, not-quite-sympathetic character, who has been scarred (emotionally as well as physically) by his injury, and left world-weary and cautious:
What currently worries him most is Talk. There is a lot of Talk about. This Talk is surreptitious, taking place at odd hours in odd corners amongst what he considers, frankly, odd people. And it is idealistic, which means that it is dangerous. It is exactly the kind of Talk he tries not to get involved with, the kind that he will hurry past with his head down, if he catches so much as a whisper.
The tension which builds throughout this story comes from never being quite sure what the characters might do, or what their true motivations are – right up to the sharply effective ending.