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.