Tag Archives: China Miéville

Miéville’s The City & the City

Detail of the cover art of Miéville's The City & the City.

Detail of the cover art of Miéville’s The City & the City.

After quickly reading China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011), I picked up Miéville’s The City & the City (2009), and read that one just as fast. I’ve noticed that both novels include tension caused by rules that seem to be impossible to transgress. In Embassytown, the Ariekei are unable to speak in certain ways, and in The City & the City locals of the city of Besźel and the city of Ul Qoma are—to the surprise of distant foreigners—unable to cross the border separating the two cities, even in places where the cities share parts of the same street.

In the acknowledgements section of The City & the City, Miéville mentions his indebtedness to the works of Raymond Chandler and Franz Kafka, among other authors. And on the cover of the book, a review from the Los Angeles Times mentions Philip K. Dick as a reference point in the novel’s style. While I haven’t read any Raymond Chandler yet, I’m familiar with the work of Philip K. Dick and Franz Kafka—both of which exhibit a dreadful paranoid about the mysterious workings of the world.

Another similarity between these two novels by Miéville is that both include important parts of their respective worlds which lay some sort of foundation for the main storyline. In Embassytown, the fascinating realm of “the immer”, with which space travel of great distances is made possible, is only given a cursory—though good—description. In The City & the City, the “cleaving” of the cities that happened at some point in the past, leaving behind ambiguous, confusing archeological evidence, is the other mysterious foundation.

Embassytown, Falsehood, and Change

Detail of cover art for China Miéville's Embassytown (2011)

Detail of cover art for China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011)

This past week I shot through China Miéville’s science fiction novel Embassytown (2011). Perhaps the driving force behind such quick reading was probably the fascinating idea Miéville introduces early in the novel: an alien species—the Ariekei—who speak with two mouths, and whose language strictly prohibits any falsehood to be spoken. They consider themselves to be speaking only truths, and not merely words as references of the truth. The species of the narrator—possibly human—is the guest in the “Embassytown” section of a strange city on the home planet of the Ariekei. The novel is pushed forward by the tension in the language of the Ariekei due to their need to express similes or even metaphors. This linguistic constructions border dangerously close to untruths and thus are difficult for the Ariekei to imagine. In other words, the necessity for untruths becomes evident.

What I kind of imagine the Ariekei look like. These are "antlions" in the game Half-Life 2.

What I kind of imagine the Ariekei look like. These are “antlions” in the game Half-Life 2.

An interesting coincidence has occurred at the time of this reading. Just as I’ve been reading the works of or about the Frankfurt School, I see that the epigraph of Miéville’s novel is a quote of Walter Benjamin taken from his essay, “On Language as such and on the Language of Man”: “The word must communicate something (other than itself)”. I’ve been reading Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment lately and had just been reading the introduction in which the authors write about the use of instrumental reason in which utopian or imaginative thought is crushed and destroyed because it does not speak of the status quo:

The arid wisdom which acknowledges nothing new under the sun, because all the pieces in the meaningless game have been played out, all the great thoughts have been thought, all possible discoveries can be construed in advance, and human beings are defined by self-preservation through adaptation—this barren wisdom merely reproduces the fantastic doctrine it rejects: the sanction of fate which, through retribution, incessantly reinstates what always was. Whatever might be different is made the same (8).

As I wrote recently, when truth is equated with the current reality, then the use of metaphor or even falsehood is needed as a negation of positivistic thought.

There is a moment in the novel where Miéville compares non-Ariekean language with the money form in that both are mediators between originally incommensurable. Reading that section, after noting the source of his epigraph, confirmed that Miéville had to have been familiar with Marxist thought. Sure enough, he has. In fact, according to Wikipedia, he’s even written about the abstract, equalizing mediation of the commodity form with regard to law: “The Commodity-Form Theory of International Law: An Introduction”, Leiden Journal of International Law, 17 (2): 271–302, 2004. It’s kind of interesting to be able to tell such a thing through a science fiction novel about language.

There’s a short interview with Miéville that I recommend listening to if you’re interested in hearing more about language and Embassytown.

The experiencing of comprehending or trying to comprehend the unknown is always kind of thrilling in science fiction. The word “wonder” probably covers this. Just like the Ariekei hold festivals in which they enjoyed hearing non-Ariekei tell lies or their own attempts at telling untruths, I suppose I also like the feeling of encountering ideas that are seemingly alien.