Monday, November 6, 2017

Chicago Nerds- Embassytown

For the August meeting of the Chicago Nerd Social (book) Club, we discussed by Embassytown by China Miéville. His most strictly science fictional tale to date, Embassytown is all about language--a race of aliens with a very weird language, who can't lie, and a disastrous story that plays out when the humans who communicate with them screw it up.

Brief notes and possible spoilers below:
  • We started out asking our audiobookers how that handled the "double-voiced" aliens; perhaps unsurprisingly, it worked better in text than aloud, although the visceral feeling of not understanding the Language might be a plus.
  • Some critiqued this as a small amount of concept stretched too much, while others really loved it.
  • 3 big ideas here: the Host's Language, the "god-drug", and Immersion. A lot of folks thought immersion (one of the FTL technologies) was super-cool, but barely touched on.
  • Miéville's immersion has some predecessors and cousins, I'd particularly recommend the spaceflight weirdness in Friedman's This Alien Shore.
  • Favorable comparisons made to Kraken, which CNSC read a while back & didn't generally love. Problems of "only weird things" fantasy, as opposed to things with a spine of plot & ideas.
  • Miéville accused of being "aggressively academic" but also "seeing how weird he can push our empathy".
  • Some comparisons to House of Leaves and Pynchon, for possibly-excessively ludic texts, if I can be forgiven such a gloss. Lots of wordplay here, some of which clicked for us, some of which didn't.
  • "The end of this is like Snow Crash, but good!" Met with gasps! Exclamations! Ratcheted it up and compared both Snow Crash and Embassytown to Max Barry's Lexicon, which some of us read & kind of liked, but hasn't fared well in our memories, nor in comparison.
  • Lots of discussion of colonial issues, why Bremen didn't just take over hard, the language-disaster as example of how even "good" colonialism can be terribly destructive. Compared the language shift to the way firearms changed militaries worldwide.
  • Some comparisons made here to Dick's Ubiq, and also Delany's Babel-17. We noted some explicit SF insider-nods in the text, including "Anglo-Ubiq", as well as more obscure things like Ithorians (from Star Wars) and Wess'har from Karen Traviss's books.
  • Some interesting discussion of Scile as a character/villain--villainy as the "academic white savior" type, also the "asshole who's always mad about "irregardless"". His conception of the Hosts as having an "Edenic" language, though, is interesting, since it helps us read this whole book as a critique of that approach to "magical language" even in works we like--Le Guin's Earthsea books, for instance. The unfixed nature of language is definitely one of the more academic notions in the book, which Miéville ties to revolutionary ideas (see also some of his language play in Un Lun Dun).
  • Brief discussin of the tragic tale of Ehrsul, got us into a brief debate on consciousness & AI.
  • Apropos AI, and apparently all other literature: "The Cyberiad is the best novel ever."
  • Lot of discussion about worldbuilding as a technique, a contiuum of "walkaround/sandbox" to "minimal worldbuilding, just plot", and where this fits. We felt like Embassytown did more "building weirdness", as opposed to just shovelling it on from the get-go, compared to other Miéville works.
  • A few of us had just read The Last Days of New Paris, brief asides on that. The coda, which brings in Miéville himself, brought comparisons to The Princess Bride and Galatea 2.2.
  • Bears repeating, we really liked the alien-ness of the Hosts.
  • We compared the "failed" Ambassadors to The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, and in turn compared that to things going on in Jemisin's Fifth Season and sequels.
  • We also noted some echoes of Butler's Xenogenesis: the need for symbiosis, but also separation.
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