Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

This was originally written in July 2011.

When I was a kid, I played a lot with other neighborhood kids, and it was all politics and skinned knees. My best friend was a girl called Alicia, and it was was a yawning difference in age between us, two whole years. We made friends when I was running a lemonade stand more or less set up by my parents. I had a cigar box full of change, and a pitcher of lemonade, and she swindled me out of the lemonade and into friendship. We played a lot of Spaceman, and various forms of tag, and played her father’s records. We had to be really careful with these, cleaning the black plastic with some kind of solution and a fuzz-covered block made for the purpose. We wore out a couple of Prince albums, the needle wearing down the grooves that transferred shape into sound vibrations. I can still do a pretty good Prince-y AHohAH, the signature trill in a lot of his songs. We cut up magazines and had projects, like one where she was building this huge eye out of all the eyes she could find in ads. Once I was in a dentist’s office, and I surreptitiously pulled out this whole page image of an eye and brought it to her, like an offering. Stealing that image made me feel like a criminal, and it thrilled me, because I’ve always been a bit of straight edge. I was never, ever, the ringleader. I was too weak for that. 

I was the kind of kid who was pushed by bullies until Alicia noticed and sent a group of girls to kick the shit out of the bully bothering me. No 4th grade bully boy wants to own up to getting razed by a bunch of girls, so the year went well for me after that. But she didn’t coddle me at all. She set to making me tough, but off-handedly, simply because she was tough and wanted people to challenge her. She would make me wrestle her – we’d used her Dad’s big waterbed which heaved and sloshed, and it’s a wonder we never popped it – and try to pin each other down. There were no spoken rules, but by tacit consent we didn’t pull hair, or bite, or kick, or choke. It was mass and motivation, and all about the angles, trying to pin her legs with mine, learning to break a handgrip on my arm with a sideways movement through where her fingers touched, the weak part of a hold. She mostly won. She was a good winner. She’d just get up, and say good game, and then we would scrounge for change and head to Kenny’s.

Kenny’s was a corner market that was dingy and owner operated. He both did and didn’t like us, because he suspected we were shoplifters – though we weren’t – but we were there all time. He kindly acquiesced to the kid folklore that if you got a Tootsie Pop wrapper that had an Indian shooting a star on it, in entirety, with nothing cut off, then you got a free sucker. Getting a wrapper like that was like Christmas. We never had any money, because we were so young as to be allowance-less, but Alicia developed all kinds of schemes to make money, so we could go and consider whether to get the Strawberry or Grape Crush, or the Tahitian Treat. We (tried to) sell rocks, or stuff we’d found next to the trash, or pictures we’d drawn. Once, a very stoned hippy bought a picture of a flower off of us for $5. Five whole dollars! Bear in mind this was very early-80s, and we were kids, so this was an unthinkable amount of money. We were sick on Pixie Stix for a week. 

Are you bored yet? Hoping I’ll get to my point? It’s possible you are not, but after over 100 pages of this sort of thing, it would weary. Then imagine you are reading this a hundred years hence, where all of my casual references to products and people and cultural stuff has been rendered alien and opaque. Hell, even now, it’s likely a bunch of you whippersnappers have no idea what a record is. (It’s a giant CD. And get off my lawn.) I think people have been saying this is Miéville’s first foray into hard science fiction, or space opera, or more just standard alien v. humans style sf, and that is true to an extent, but I believe the primary mode of this book is memoir. Don’t let the aliens distract you, this is an individual telling her life, in the way that people tell their lives. Which is to say confusingly, with emphasis on details that are meaningless to others, or have only sense in retrospect, or the retroactive understanding is bullshit. 

As a mode of writing science fiction, memoir is frakking brilliant, because nostalgia is largely the purview of fantasy, to largely ugly results. I’m quoting myself here but: nostalgia is memory without shame, and even fantasy series that don’t mean to — A Song of Ice and Fire, cough — the pining for outmoded and awful social systems gets baked into the proceedings, because the pageantry, dress, and material culture is presumed to arise from the shit precepts of the culture at large. To put it more simply: Gosh, but those costumes are sweet, let’s assume they arise from whatever fucking bullshit I assume went on in history because I can’t imagine a past different from the present.

But, here’s the interesting part, for me, I think there’s a nostalgic component to science fiction as well, though it is ancillary, residing in the reader, or the writer, and not the text. At least not exactly. If you are a science fiction nerd, likely you have been one from youth, scarfing down both Golden Age classics and media trash without much differentiation, dreaming the way children do, playing let’s pretend with space ships and adventure, which mirrors our own desire for the adulthood ahead, and trains us on a mode of telling that future. Often we age out of the silliest of science fiction’s offerings – though maybe silly is too strong a word – maybe I mean formative? Just try reading something like Asimov’s Foundation series as a hardened genre reader, not having read it as a kid, and you will see what I mean. You will not like it. It will not blow your mind. You will see how it influenced later writers, and you might appreciate the ideas, but you will think it is hamstring by horrible characters and a sort of naiveté. 

For the record, I freaking love Foundation. It did blow my mind, unformed as it was, and the reading of that series was an education in science fiction. The first three books are loosely connected, dealing with the same idea, psychohistory, a sort of science-based prognosticating tool, a meta-psychology of culture, and how something like that could be used, and then subverted. Those first books were written all together, an album of books riffing on the same theme. Then later, when Asimov was in his dotage, he decided it would be a great idea to resolve all of his various universes together – and dude wrote 500+ books, so this is no small task. Then come the later Foundation books, where R. Daneel Oligraw shows up from the Robot series, and some folk from the Empire series, and likely people from series I never read and couldn’t identify, ’cause I’ve only read a dozen or so books by Asimov. It was a nuclear disaster of galactic proportions, and spent a lot of my nostalgic coin for the series. Those books straight up pissed me off, because they fucked with my childhood reading. Because, even with science fiction, nostalgia is the coin of the realm, even though it’s regulated to a grey market. Maybe it is for all genre fiction. 

Anyway, so now that I’ve had this huge digression, onto why memoir is bloody perfect for a sfnal work: it makes that nostalgia manifest. It resides the nostalgia in a character telling her past, in the confusing, unsettling, almost solipsistic way of the autobiographer, not infodumping you about how culture works because an enculturated person, a situated person, with her own limited view, with her own limited knowledge, can’t even see where the story is opaque, hard to grasp, alien. This is not to say, as a reader, I found the first over 100 pages anything but tough sledding. That was work to read that, hard work, and likely many people will throw this book down in frustration, and that is completely fair. But holy hell, once the gears caught, once all the terminology and references to the children’s folklore of an imagined culture, and the slow understanding by the memoirist, of how the whole show works, or doesn’t, and then shit gets dire and pear-shaped, that’s when I loved this book. The last two thirds tear along, all of that boring anecdote resolving into action and stakes, and I loved every minute of the way it unfolded.

Which is not to say I don’t call bullshit on some of the ideas presented here. The central story has to do with Language, something spoken by an alien culture living with a group of humans (mostly) in the titular Embassytown. Language is this strange, antediluvian language, where the speakers can’t lie, can’t even conceive of lie. I don’t even want to get into it more than that, so sorry. It’s too hard to explain without a page of anecdotes, like an early life story, and that’s what Miéville does. I call bullshit on a lot of the ways Language functions, but I don’t know that that matters to my enjoyment of this book, in the end. I was trained up as a reader on all kinds of science fictions that I think have flawed premises, like psychohistory. But let’s pretend. Let’s play this out. Let’s take this as a given, and see where this goes. 

Memoir’s aims are similar, I think, let’s take my life and make it make sense. I don’t think Avice is intended to be a damaged narrator or anything, except insofar as we are all damaged narrators. I honestly can’t remember if when I stole that picture I was with Alicia or not, though I have the vague sense that I was, but I can’t even figure where we were other than a doctor’s office, and that doesn’t make any sense. I went to the doctor’s with my folks, not 8-year-old friends. But I wrote that bit of the story above with a decisiveness I don’t feel. So maybe the stuff I’m calling bullshit about how Language is exactly that. Avice is bullshitting herself & us, but not because she’s damaged or floaking, but because we all bullshit ourselves into being. 

Embassytown is a science fictional study in nostalgia, though I don’t want to imply that it’s all soft-focus and dreamy; more the kind of nostalgia where you can only understand what you’ve lost once you lose it. You didn’t even dread losing it – whatever “it” is, your childhood, that person – at the time because you never understood it. Though I get the sense this book is being pushed for a general audience, I don’t think it will appeal for people who aren’t pretty solid scifi nerds, with our dim rememberings of the spacecraft flying out of our youth. As one of those, it was a great freaking read.

My Nebula Predictions (2014)

I managed to pull this stunt off last year where I accurately predicted which book would be awarded the Nebula in the novel category. I’m not sure I can do it again, but I’m going to give it a shot. Unlike last year, I haven’t actually read all of the books on the list (though I’ve hit samples of all of them), but handicapping who will win the award isn’t about my preferences as a reader. I think it’s a dead heat between Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. When I started writing this, I predicted a Gaiman win, but in the process of writing, I think I’ve changed my mind.

I almost just went with Ancillary Justice for the win — the novel just won the Arthur C Clarke, BSFA and a whole raft of other awards — but I flinched when I learned it was a debut novel. Very few debut novels have won the Nebula, though there is some recent precedent with 2010’s Windup Girl. Nebula voters are professional writers, and I think there’s a preference for writers who have paid their dues, so to speak. (A joke, you see, because you don’t actually have to be a member of SFWA to be nominated. Bad joke.)  Ancillary Justice really has Nebula written all over it. It’s solidly science fiction, but isn’t wanking about tech too much, letting the reader experience the futuristic dislocations as the character does. It’s got the right mix of conceptually interesting science fictional ornament, with dazzling near fantastic explorations of culture to charm the New Wavers and the fantasists. It’s a strong novel with a broad appeal to very different kinds of science fiction readers. Plus it’s fun and cool.

I adored A Stranger in Olondria, which set off all the heart fireworks I have for Ursula K Le Guin. If I had a vote, this would be mine. But this is also a debut novel, again. Nebula voters also seem to have a clear preference for science fiction over straight fantasy, unless your name is actually Le Guin or Bujold. (Which goes back to the debut author thing, somewhat circularly, because both Le Guin and Bujold were well established writers of both sf & f when their fantasy novels won. ) The other fantasy novels that have won are set contemporary, like American Gods, or Among Others. This will become a refrain of sorts in this essay, but as much as I loved Olondria, I just don’t think it has broad enough appeal to the more science fictionally minded of the voters.

Two of the nominees are historical fiction of a sort: Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Jinni, which is set in turn of the 20th Century New York, and Hild by Nicola Griffith, which is about a 7th C British abbess. I enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, partially because I have some unhealthy obsessions about the Gilded Age and the rise of labor movements and the like — ask me about the Panic of 1893 and I will bore. you. to. death. — but that’s ultimately a boutique interest. Fair or not, I also think The Golem and The Jinni will be dismissed by some as “just a romance.” My two cents: the inclusion of romantic elements is less worrisome to me than the rushed and unsatisfying conclusion.

I haven’t read Hild, so I went rolling through reviews to get a feel for reader response, and this line in an io9 review struck me as ominous for its chances: “Call it skeptical fantasy, or an epic that treats magic as politically-charged superstition rather than an otherworldly power.” Now I happen to think that’s really neat — a twisting of the genre conventions — but I think it’s going to result in readers wondering how this story is fantasy at all. Either way, I think historical fantasy is a long shot to win the Nebula. Historical science fiction, sure, like Blackout/All Clear which won in 2011, but not fantasy. Again, the bias towards science fiction novels is clear when you look through the past winners. Throw in historical fiction as well, and I think a fair number of readers are going to nod off.

The question of how the novel fits into the science fiction genre dogs We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as well. Set in contemporary America, with a set up that, while unusual, is not unheard of, the book more explores the intersections of scientific theory, culture, and the family. I would argue that it is science fictional, in that it’s fiction about science, but not everyone is going to agree. The familiar is sometimes the most alien thing we know. That I feel compelled to make this argument means Fowler’s book is likely too much of an edge case to win. It is a really lovely novel, by a well established writer in clear control of her craft, just not science fictional enough.

There are two more space opera-ish jaunts like Ancillary JusticeFire With Fire by Charles E Gannon and The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. Fire with Fire is kinda cozy in a way: conventionally plotted, with a Golden Age sensibility from prose style to its philosophical concerns. That will invoke a lot of nostalgia for many voters. But, as I’ve said before, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a coalition government, and I don’t think Fire with Fire will resonate for people who prefer fantasy. It’s conventionality is also a mark against it; Fire with Fire feels like a period piece, which is weird considering it’s set in the future.

When I went to order The Red: First Light, I was surprised to discover it wasn’t stocked in my library. This lead me to the revelation that The Red: First Light is an indie title. I didn’t even know you could do that! While I don’t think there’s a real war going on between indie and traditionally published writers — Tor.com, for example, posted a glowing review of The Red: First Light — but the SFWA membership leans heavily to the traditionally published, and a lot of writers know each other from their professional ties under the same imprint. (And it should be observed that Nagata started out traditionally published.) I’m bullshitting here a little, because I haven’t read The Red: First Light. That it isn’t even stocked in my (very good public) library makes me think it’s pretty well screwed though.

I’m sure there’s some complicated formula which would account for The Red: First Light’s indie status versus the debut novel status of Ancillary Justice, but then when you throw in yet another science fiction novel set in the future with space ships and a lot of military/politics like Fire With Fire, the math gets too complicated. Part of the problem here is that there are too many novels that I think fit into the same broad sub-genre, and I think it’s going to diffuse the voters that are inclined towards that sub-genre in the first place. In other words, it’s going to split the vote. (People haven’t been throwing awards at either Nagata’s or Gannon’s novels though, so I’m thinking they don’t stand a chance, just that they’ll draw away from Ancillary Justice.)

Maybe that gives Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not so closely matched with other nominated novels, a leg up. (And I’m not trying to imply that the writers of SFWA are all huddling in their narrow sub-genres or something, but the heart wants what it wants.) Even though Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantasy, it’s the kind of fantasy that Nebula voters seem to embrace: set in the here and now, but with a fantastic twist on the everyday that disrupts the readers perceptions. Gaiman is clearly at the height of his powers as a craftsman of words, and his prose is tight as a drum. Like Among Others, which won two years ago, it’s also got a nostalgic component, as the main character reminisces upon his childhood with a dewy sense of wonder. There’s also a lot of fan service to readers and nerds, like long descriptions of the main character reading and panegyrics to the wonders of literature.

I actually found this fan service somewhat tiresome in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it calculated, but there was definitely a part of me that thought, how easy it is to make your readers (who are, after all, by definition readers) love your main character by having him perform obeisances to the act of reading. The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s protagonist is also an artist of some stripe — writer, maybe — and I think all the ruminating on art and memory and storytelling is going to play to voters who are artists themselves. Writers writing about writing is always a good bet when writers vote on writing awards.

I’ll be clear: I don’t think Gaiman is pandering, even though I’m making fun a little here. The themes of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, including Gaiman’s tendency to insert characters who are artist-observers, are right in line with the themes he’s been exploring his entire writing career. I think Ocean at the End of the Lane sits quite merrily with Graveyard Book (which won the Newbery) and Coraline (which won the Nebula for the novella) in a triangulation of the themes of violence and childhood and memory and matriculation, traversing the uneasy border that separates us grown ups from our childhoods. This has heretofore been a winning mix of themes for Gaiman.

I think my real reticence to call it for Gaiman comes from the slight what the fuck angle to what all happens in Ocean at the End of the Lane. The crisis of the novel is real…let’s say metaphorical, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what exactly that all meant. I’m assuming someone with a more writerly perspective might appreciate this more than I did, but it’s entirely possible that the opposite is true. (Or both; whatever.) The fact that this novel reiterates common themes to Gaiman’s work is also a strike against it: Ocean is sleepy, safe, and treading familiar ground.

Ancillary Justice, by contrast feels energetic and ambitious. Even if it has the occasional first-writer misstep, the book feels like a leap into the black. No, of course Leckie isn’t reinventing the wheel here — nerds more exacting than I can create the list of antecedents (like the Culture novels) — but she is inventing her wheel, and it’s just a kick to be along for the ride. Nor was Ocean nominated at all for the Hugo, which indicates there isn’t this critical whiteheat around it like Ancillary Justice. Given that voting closed last month, maybe that’s not quite a factor, but I do think it’s an indicator.

So, anyway, there you have it. I’m predicting Ancillary Justice for the win. I won’t be a bit surprised if Gaiman wins, just to hedge a little.

Now I’ll have to start reading the novels up for the Hugo.

 

Just kidding, we all know Wheel of Time is a cincher.

 

 

The n-Body Problem: Oh, the Humanity

In the end, the zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a waste disposal problem. Burn them in giant ovens? Bad optics. Bury them in landfill sites? The first attempt created acres of twitching, roiling mud. The acceptable answer is to jettison the millions of immortal automatons into orbit.

Horror can seem a little rule-bound at times. There’s a monster, say a zombie. You work out how it’s defined – it’s a living person infected with a rage virus, or a dead person who is reanimated. It can run, or it can’t. It can climb, or it can’t. It doesn’t like sunlight or it doesn’t care. You figure how to kill it, or immobilize it, or cure it, or you die and join it. You figure out if everyone is infected, or if it’s transmissible, or how long it’s been since the first outbreak, the last outbreak. You set up communities that function according to rules that dovetail into the rules for the monster. In this way, you make the point that the true monster is human. Ba dump tss.

The opening of The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess, despite a seriously questionable level of sanity from the first person protagonist, seems to start with rules in mind. It’s been 20 something years since the first dead person didn’t stay dead. It’s not so much that they became flesh-eating corpses, but that the dead just never stop moving. After the initial panic died down, they had millions of wriggling undead bodies to be disposed of. End result: they start shooting them into space. Our protagonist – who I would like to note is off his nut – is spending his time plying some serious hypochondria and chasing a man called Dixon. Dixon is a traveling horror show who rolls into town and convinces the entire town to kill itself, presumably so they can go to space because it’s so pretty and peaceful up there. Then he plays in their corpses.

You can kinda see how this set up might unfold: the requisite show down between Dixon and Bob (which is not the protagonist’s name, but I think the only one he ever gives); the boy Bob picks up serving as a generational example of What Has Changed; some pyrotechnics with WasteCorp, which is the multinational company that has shot a billion wriggling corpses into space; maybe even a sequence in the cold airlessness of space, the sun rising over the black orb of the planet in wavering stabs of light. Burgess occasionally gives you glimpses of these narrative possibilities – like a searing fever dream that takes place in space, the corpses turning sunward like flowers – but mostly he just laughs inscrutably and delivers some of the sickest shit and stomach-dropping plot turns I’ve ever seen.

The n-body problem is a mathematical problem going back to antiquity for predicting the motions of celestial objects in gravitational relationship with one another. This is certainly a problem if you don’t understand that, say, the stars and planets are not in a fixed orb rotating around the earth, but it’s apparently also difficult to solve using general relativity. Frankly, there’s a lot of wonky maths that I don’t get in the explanation. Obviously, this book is named The n-Body Problem because of one billion corpses in space and all that, but I think there might be another reason too: Burgess is taking a big, gory dump on post-apocalyptic conventions, just absolutely hazing you and your expectations. Solve for x, bitch.

Another possible title for this novel: Trigger Warning for All Things.

So you want to see some marauding cannibals and rape gangs? Boom, only he turns the rape gangs into a mordant joke, and denies you the prurient thrills that so much apocalit delivers in the form of sexual assault. How about a blood bath? Boom, only this time it’s a swimming pool, and the blood is still shimmering in that uncanny way of the undead here. The sickness is so sick it’s downright funny at times, these horrible laundry lists of horrors that numb until, wait, what the holy hell was that? The whole thing is completely bonkers, transgressive in a way that goes beyond the usual transgression of body horror, of which there is plenty. Nobody’s going to yell, “Oh, the humanity!” when the zombies start falling from the sky in some half-assed coda.

“They look like cherry blossoms. Opening and then falling apart in the wind.”

I guess I could go on, but I’d probably get into spoiler territory. I just want to note, quickly, that there’s something here that reminds me of Ice by Anna Kavin. Ice is a strange, mid-century post-apocalyptic novel written by a functioning heroin addict which is about, insofar it is about anything so easily spoken, two men fighting over girl. The landscapes rear up in the same ways, the connectives cut with a box-cutter, the identities fragile and mutable. And the iceIce made me incredibly uncomfortable – often in ways The n-Body Problem does not, owing to certain perversions I have about mid-century novels – but there’s still a central discomfort that feels the same to me. This discomfort doesn’t necessarily come from content – though, I did mention this was sick, non?- but some deeper, more chthonic level which implicates me in the proceedings. If I were still rating things – I’m trying not to – I’d leave this similarly unrated, because no metric as childish as stars – their motions cannot be solved for anyway – can get at my response.

So yeah, thanks to sj for turning me onto this, but then also what the fuck did I just read?