“I’ve got this book I want you to read,” a friend said to me during a femography meet. “I think you’d be really into it. It’s about language, and… stuff. It’s science fiction. But it’s really interesting.”
So after the meet, we went to her house and got the book. We ended up hanging out most of the afternoon. I was thrilled, because I’d known her for ages and wanted to be good friends with her but never made that leap.
Giving someone a book because it made you think of them, out of the blue, is a pretty special friendship indicator, I think. I felt honoured. So I put the book on my bedside table and after reading three pages from it that night I didn’t touch it for months.
To be fair, occasionally I would read a paragraph from it, before I put it down again. There were always at least three books piled on top of poor Embassytown. The book starts in the middle of a party the reader has no context for, in a world that is not explained, and characters that simply appear without introduction. I desperately wanted to read the book, and find out what it was that made my friend think of me. And, you know, I wanted to enjoy the book as well. But it was tough-going.
Finally, when I was moving to Arnhem Land with only 15 kilos of baggage allowance, I had the impetus to actually read the book. I took it as the only fiction book, so I would be forced to read it. Even so, it took me two and a half months to finish it.
Until around page 50, where there was a massive revelation, I still didn’t understand the story. After that the revelations came in waves as the story picked up pace and the stakes were raised, incrementally but significantly.
I can understand why my friend didn’t tell me too much about the novel. I also don’t want to give much away because it was so hard to earn the revelations and yet so worth it when I did, so I don’t want to take the potential pleasure from you.
This makes it hard to review the book. So I’m going to give you a SPOILER WARNING.
Embassytown, the place that provides the title, is a colony town on the outskirts of a wide-ranging country, comparable to Great Britain, except on a galaxy sort of scale. The story revolves around human (or as they call them, “terre”) relations with the indigenous creatures of the land Embassytown is based in, who are called Hosts, or Ariekei. (As I’m living in Arnhem Land and interacting with Indigenous people encountering colonialism on a daily basis, this was pretty interesting to me.)
Individual Terre can’t communicate with the Hosts because they speak with two voices and they only say what is truth.
Their language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen. (62)
If I [record] a word in Language, and play it to an Ariekes, I understand it, but to them it means nothing, because it’s only sound, and that’s not where the meaning lives. It needs a mind behind it. (62-63)
Through this interesting premise, Melville is able to explore the idea of truth and fiction. Arieke, the indigenous people, are not able to lie, because to lie would be akin to believing something that you didn’t think was true. It’s a paradox. They can use simile but not metaphor. They say “I am like the girl who ate what was given to her” but not “I am the girl who ate what was given to her”.
Something that comes across is that sometimes you have to “lie”, that is say something that is not factually correct, in order to tell a deeper truth. Whenever we talk about big concepts, we stray from straight fact and reach for metaphor. For an example of this, I use an excerpt from the recently reviewed Julie and Julia:
I believe that calves’ liver is the single sexiest food that there is… The reason people despise liver is that to eat it you must submit to it – just like you must submit to a really stratospheric fuck. Remember when you were nineteen and you went at it like it was a sporting event? Well, liver is the opposite of that. With liver you’ve got to will yourself to slow down. You’ve got to give yourself over to everything that’s a little repulsive, a little scary, a little too much about it. When you buy it from the butcher, when you cook it in a pan, when you eat it, slowly, you ever can get away from the feral fleshiness of it. Liver forces you to access taste buds you didn’t know you had, and it’s hard to open yourself to it.
I think this speaks for itself. (Someone will probably argue this is a simile but I think it blurs the line).
The truth in lies idea also reminded me of a line from this video, by John Green: “Nostalgia is inevitably a yearning for a past that never existed, and when I'm writing, there are no bees to sting me out of my sentimentality. For me at least, fiction is the only way I can even begin to twist my lying memories into something true.”
John Green says it better than I can, but what he’s saying is what fiction is like. Fiction is telling a story that didn’t happen in order to convey truth.
The other most interesting part of the story comes right at the end, so if you’ve coped with the spoilers so far but you don’t want the end of the story ruined, BACK OUT NOW BIG SPOILER COME BACK WHEN YOU’VE READ IT (Highlight to read).
At the end of the book the Arieke have to learn to “lie” in order to save their lives and their world. They have to recognise that terre are sentient beings who can communicate. They have to split the signifier and the signified: “What they spoke now weren’t things or moments anymore but the thoughts of them, pointings-at; meaning no longer a flat facet of essence; signs ripped from what they signed” (365).
This is an incredibly painful process. They are essentially destroying their mind and their worldview and rebuilding it. “No wonder it made them sick. They were like new vampires, retaining memories while they sloughed off lives. They’d never be cured. They went quiet one by one, and not because their crisis ended. They were in a new world. It was the world we live in” (366).
This reminds me of my daily life. People I see every day still remember a time when there were no settlers, when colonialism did not touch them, at least not directly. The process of colonisation is ongoing, and it is sometimes painful. Reading this description of the Hosts’ minds being destroyed and remade instantly made me think of people here trying to adapt to a balanda (white person) way of life. I don’t think it’s impossible to live in both cultures and be considered a success according to both world-views, but it is very difficult. I think the destroying and remaking of the mind is a very powerful… wait for it…