Embassytown is at the edge of the “immer”, an outpost of the Bremen empire, and at the border between the Ariekei and the humans on the planet Arieka. It is clearly science fiction, verging towards dystopian science fiction, but it’s also about colonialism, about the alien and the other, and about words and signs and truth and lies and revolutions that change the meaning of all of these. Negotiating between the Ariekei, or Hosts, who are the aliens, and the mostly-human community are the Ambassadors, who we gradually find out are sets of doubled, identical beings who speak “Language” with two voices but one brain, the only form of communication that the aliens, who are alien to the point of not even breathing oxygen–or being physically or mentally capable of lying, of saying that something is not what it is but something else–can understand.
Drifting among the power structures, danger zones and levels of communication in Embassytown, is Avice, a girl who made an unusual contact with the alien race early in her life, and who becomes a Navigator in the “immer,” able to transport vessels in a nebulous, shifting space among the stars and planets that make up the universe. On one planet she finds Scile, a linguist obsessed with the Host alien language and way of communication, and brings him in her wake back to Arieka. Scile’s investigation and idealism happens to coincide with the appearance of an impossible Ambassador from Bremen, and the results are ultimately disturbing and destructive in moral and ethical as well as physical ways.
Embassytown is a trippy read. A lot of it makes more sense if you’re familiar with the sign and signified and other Derridean stuff, or if you’re used to reading or watching science fiction in which obscure or made-up words describe technology, environment and aliens. It takes a while to get into, but I was gripped when I finally did. Although the novel is more about ideas than people, there is some relatable emotion and experience, particularly as events unfold, but I found it hard to get a sense of Avice and the other characters as more than ciphers. I admired it and enjoyed it as an intellectual rather than emotional or escapist read, thinking about its allusions and structures (probably because I read it two days before I had to teach it) and I’m sure I missed a lot of what was going on. It’s a dark, weird, thought-provoking novel about big questions, without any easy answers.