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China Miéville already has a considerable track record in socialist science fiction. His latest, Embassytown, can be seen as a contribution to materialist theories of consciousness, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh.

China Miéville, Embassytown (Macmillan 2011), 405pp.

Science fiction has long been a genre for writers with a political message, from the extreme right-wing visions of Robert A. Heinlein to left-wing writers like Ken MacLeod and Ursula Le Guin. China Miéville already has a considerable track record in what could be called socialist science fiction. His 2004 novel Iron Council ends with one of the most stirring fictional portrayals of the actuality of revolution I have ever come across; the revolutionaries, frozen in time in their advance on the seat of power, but always immanent, always coming. Embassytown could in some ways be seen as another novel about a revolution, but in this case, the revolution is not a social and political one, but a revolution in consciousness. The meaning of it is also far less clear.

In science fiction you expect aliens which look very different from humans, but more interesting are explorations of different forms of consciousness. In the hands of socialist writers, these can be illuminating attempts to imagine unalienated consciousness in a post-revolutionary society, as for example in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or more recently and less seriously in Iain M Bank’s Culture novels. While it is difficult to see the latter as sustained explorations of alienation, there are within them some interesting thoughts about difference. Ultimately in these novels it is the embellished but still just about humanoid people of the Culture who are the real aliens, since their society has abolished exploitation and alienation. In contrast, the most extravagantly different aliens in appearance, The Affront, look like balls of gas with tentacles but behave in a depressingly familiar way, like a cross between a Prussian general and a member of the Bullingdon Club. With Embassytown, China Mi√©ville could be seen as adding to this vein of writing, but discussing not so much alienation as materialist theories of consciousness.

Embassytown is a human settlement on the planet Arieka, at the outer limits of known space, devoted to attempts to communicate with the Ariekei, called the Hosts. The Hosts are immediately different from the humans because they cannot lie, but we learn that the differences in consciousness go much further than that. The Hosts are not addicted or morally compelled to veracity, it is that for them, language is reality, unmediated by consciousness; indeed, it is not language, but Language. This means they cannot speak figuratively: there is no ‘in theory’ in the Hosts’ Language. Once they discover the concept of similes from the humans, they can only employ one if it has been acted out, so that they can then be referring to a real event. The novel’s main character, Avice, is herself part of the Language, after she performed ‘the girl who was hurt in the dark and then ate what was given to her’ for the Hosts’ future simile needs.

Because the Language is not so much a means of communication as it is reality itself, it only has meaning when the Hosts recognise the reality of the mind behind it. Robots can be programmed to speak Language, but the Hosts cannot understand them; even though the sounds are the same, they do not hear them as language at all. The Hosts speak from two oral orifices at the same time, and the humans have discovered that the only way that they can communicate with them is for two twinned clones to speak together, each taking one part of the two ‘cut’ and ‘turn’ voices. It is not clear, at the start of the novel, whether the Hosts think that the clone pairs are one mind or two.

In materialist terms, the Hosts seem close to reflexivity, and the action of the novel comes when contact with the humans impels them from this into full dialectical consciousness. One assumes that they have been moving in this direction already; that they can understand the concept of a simile before it is acted out implies this, as do their attempts to perform lies on special, ritual occasions. However, the major break comes when the human imperial power, Bremen, sends a new ambassador who is not a clone pair but two individuals modified so as to be able to speak the cut and turn parts together. The Hosts can certainly understand the new ambassador, but the effect on them of hearing Language from what is obviously two separate individuals is like a potent drug, and under the effects of mass aural addiction, their society starts to fall apart. The only way for the Hosts to save themselves is to make themselves immune to the drug: to move from Language to language, learn how to lie.

As a sustained examination of a different form of consciousness this is fascinating, but what does it mean? Not all novels have to have a message, but given the very clear political intent of Mi√©ville’s earlier works, it is not unreasonable to expect a point here beyond the depiction of intelligent but reflexive consciousness. This is not a character-driven novel - not even the main character Avice comes alive as a fully-rounded figure - so the meaning becomes more important if the book is to be more than an interesting thought-experiment. It is not easy to discern what we are supposed to take away from the story of the Ariekei’s awakening to theoretical thought, but if I have understood correctly, it is here that I begin to part company with Mi√©ville.

The obvious, if apparently simplistic, question to ask about a novel concerning major social change is whether it is supposed to be positive or negative. This is particularly pointed when, as here, the change comes not from within a society but from outside. The humans are the colonial power - the parent society, Bremen, is revealed to have all the imperial machinations you would expect in the role - so are they destroying indigenous cultures out of careless ignorance or greed, or bringing the benighted natives the delights of metaphor?

Although the human narrator does not fully understand the Hosts’ culture (no humans do), we are given enough information to see it in a positive light. The Hosts clearly have a sophisticated society which may not be an alien utopia (they have wars among themselves), but which is certainly no worse than the human society they encounter. Although their original consciousness is very deliberately alien, in places the novel seems to be pointing us towards the conclusion that in some ways their ideas are superior to those of the humans. The Hosts, for example, cannot understand robots speaking Language, as they do not recognise them as minds. At the beginning of the novel, this makes them seem rather limited and old fashioned, as Avice’s best friend is a robot called Ehrsul. However, as the novel develops, we see Ehrsul’s behaviour more and more as a the result of programming (‘Turingware’) than as arising from a genuine character, and in the end Ehrsul, in a neat reversal, cannot communicate with the newly-conscious Hosts as she cannot understand them. When the Hosts were unable to treat Ehrsul’s speech as communication with another consciousness, it seems that they had a point.

The key difference between the Hosts’ consciousness and the humans goes beyond alienation, but in teaching the Hosts objectification, the humans, alienated themselves, would presumably be leading them into alienation as well. By the end of the novel, the differences in consciousness do after all seem to be removed. For the narrator, the Hosts’ development is clearly a good thing, but while this is simply in character, there is little in the way in which the denouement is told to give us an indication that we are expected or allowed to disagree. Dissention from the Hosts’ abandonment of Language for language is portrayed as religious fundamentalism, on the part of both Hosts and humans. Those Hosts who chose to withdraw from human contact, to ensure that the next generation escape addiction to the speech drug, appear as deluded at best. The way forward is for the Hosts and human colonists to develop their position as the gateway to the unexplored space beyond, and anyone who does not embrace this future is simply behind the times, although even Avice’s depiction of it does not make it seem particularly positive: ‘So we’re to be ravaged by speculation and thrill-seekers. We’ll be the wilds. I’ve been to deadwood planets and pioneer towns: even those way stations have their good things’ (p.404).

The real positive about this future is that they will be independent from Bremen, and that the participating Hosts will be full partners rather than colonial servants to the humans. It may be the only satisfactory way to resolve the problem Miéville sets his characters on Ariekei, but as an anti-colonial message it is rather lacking. Miéville is not the only science fiction writer to discover that the effects of human interference in his alien culture cannot be undone, but the lack of regret, coupled with the impatience with the aliens who clearly do regret it, makes this an odd political note to encounter from a socialist author (for an older take on a similar dilemma, see Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest, 1972).

At the end of the novel, Miéville demonstrates his Marxist thinking with a neat demonstration of thesis - antithesis - synthesis, as he has Avice describe the three ways in which the two-voiced Hosts name the city they are shaping together with the humans: embassy/town, town/embassy, or embassytown/embassytown. Despite the synthesis, however, this is a less satisfying conclusion than it might have been. As always with China Miéville, it is beautifully written, but just as the Hosts need the thought behind the words to give the words meaning, I found that this came to rather less than the sum of its parts.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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