I’m currently 75 pages into China Mieville’s new novel Embassytown. And what can I say to recommend it most highly? That it’s a brilliantly imagined science fiction novel about language and philosophies of language. Yes. That’s right. A must read.
First there’s the bilingual pun that sets up the universe in which the novel takes place. Out of the English words to immerse and immersion he uses to describe the descent into what other sci-fi works call subspace or hyperspace, Mieville retrieves the German word immer, or always, to name what’s being descended into. He then contrasts immer with our mundane Newtonian universe by naming that reality with immer‘s antonym, manchmal, or sometimes. From that admirable play on words, Mieville goes on to describe the relationship between immer and manchmal as being analogous to Saussure’s distinction in structural linguistics between langue, a language as a social system of rules and lexicons, and parole, an individual speech act whose assembly occurs via that system. Our reality, the comparison suggests, is a particular utterance of a generative meta-universe that exists outside and sustains our dimensions of space and time.
He had me at langue.
Then after introducing the secondary main character as a linguist and a scholar, he goes on to introduce us to the basic conceit of the novel. The alien race the novel is primarily (at least at this point) concerned with, the Ariekei, have a unique language with two salient characteristics. The first is that it is a double-tongued language: the Ariekei have two mouths and each mouth utters a stream of phonemes in tandem with the other, neither of which is intelligible without the other. One stream is a called Cut and the other Turn by the human linguists who’ve deciphered the language’s mechanisms, though I’m at a loss to find if Mieville is alluding to anything in particular with that suggestive link between terms (cut to me suggests manufacture, and turn, of course, figurative language, or trope). Mieville carries this particular aspect of the conceit into the structure of the novel, as the first half of is seemingly written in two alternating timelines, one in anticipation of the arrival of a new ambassador pair trained in the Ariekei language (one speaking Cut, the other Turn), the other after that arrival.
The second characteristic of the language is that it impossibly conforms to Romantic notions of a natural or original language. The language is not symbolic: words are not abstracted referents that refer to absent phenomenon, what we generally understand as a language; instead each word is the thing in itself. As such, the Ariekei have no written language nor can they understand artificially generated speech acts: they only find language intelligible in the immediate context of the utterer (and only if the utterance is double-tongued). Mieville’s main philosophical touchstone here seems to be Walter Benjamin, who provides the novel’s epigraph. Curiously, Mieville has the Ariekei able to understand recorded speech as being that uttered by a concrete intelligence, but how they’re able to distinguish recorded from manufactured speech isn’t (yet) made clear. The conceit of an original or concrete language gets expressed structurally as the novel’s main character, an immerser – someone who is able to sail ships through the immer – who during her childhood was called upon by the Ariekei to perform in a ritualized pantomime, called a Simile, that provided the Ariekei with a new word. Or rather, the immerser more or less is called upon to be a word in their language, a language which the human characters in the novel refer to simply as Language.
What connection Language will have to the state of immer I’m dying to find out. One of Mieville’s strong suits is the ability to sustain the mystery of crucial details about the composition of the worlds and universes he creates until those details can appear as a narrative crux. One of his other strong suits is the reason that anyone remotely interested in language or in science fiction should check the book out, and that is his ability to produce narratives that are dazzling in their density of detail and creative imagination while working through some risky speculations. Anyone who’s read The City & The City knows he can pull it off.