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.
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.