The Biopunk Reader


China Mieville’s Embassytown

by Wyatt Matthews

It would be specious to say that China Mieville’s new novel Embassytown is bio-punk. Mieville is an author who alludes subgenre definitions, even the “new weird” label that many like to think of as his hallmark. However, there is much about this novel for biopunk fans to love.

In Embassytown, a young woman, Avice, returns from Bremen, the hub of life and commerce, to her home planet, a backwater tucked away in a far corner of the universe, where life, in the capital, Embassytown, centers upon trade with the Hosts, an alien race highly adept at biological manipulation. The nature of their language poses significant challenges to communication and understanding.

Though this (inadequate) summary of the premise would give the impression of a very straight-forward science fiction novel, what we are actually given is a multi-dimensional story that offers a nod to known scifi tropes, including bio-engineering and alien invasion, while tweaking these conventions to produce an epic story (distilled to 368 pages) about the nuances of politics and the nature of language.

Take, for instance, the following excerpt:

It was the size of a baby, a grub-thing with stump legs and filigree antennae, its back punctuated with holes, some ringed with inlaid metal. Its locomotion was between a scamper and a convulsion. It was a zelle, a biorigged battery-beast, into which wires could be slotted, and out of which, depending on what its owner fed it, different power would flow.[1]

In isolation, it would seem like bio-punk incarnate, but the zelle is not a bad metaphor for Mieville’s writing in this case. He does with genre what electronic music producers aspire to do with soundwaves, linking a string of boxes together to bend the output stream to his liking. Passages like the one above, describing the “biorigging” that is prevalent throughout story, are just part of Mieville’s greater tendency toward genre-rigging.

The characters of Embassytown shift alliances as the mysteries of the Hosts’s language are peeled away. By turns, they orbit and clash in a dance of power, sex, and politics. We see the tested traditions of an unraveling aristocracy, a plot comparable to the social intrigues given in “cyberprep” and “mannerpunk” storylines…and then Mieville twists a few knobs on the narrative and the symphony becomes grating noise: we’re hauled into the equivalent of zombie onslaughts on an unfamiliar landscape, one in which airplanes bleed, power plants can wave hello, and factories roam the hills.

Mieville may have become one of the great genre-hackers of our age, at the top of a long list of writers and musicians alike, from Kazuo Ishiguro to genre-bending DJ’s like Daniel M. Nakamura, many of whom have dropped science fiction onto their palette and enriched it in the process.

There is nothing choppy about the way Embassytown is crafted. Mieville is not a mere tinkerer. Though this is certainly a scifi novel, he continues to write from a deep core of raw imagination.

Readers who enjoy the cross-section of science fiction and linguistics will be enthralled, given that speculative linguistics is at least as central to the storyline as the bio-fantastic. Meanwhile, Mieville’s own precision of language is impressive and he gives words without referents equal presence, making for a quite interactive read where the reader’s own imagination is asked to illustrate the details of some otherwise spectral words and images.

It seems that it is as the Cambridge Companion of Science Fiction had hoped back in 2003: “China Mieville…will certainly begin to define the fields of the fantastic during the first decade of the twenty-first century.”[2]

No doubt, Mieville will have gained some new fans—those who initially found the “new weird” to be too weird—this reviewer included. Embassytown is very accessible. Whereas Katy Stauber’s Revolution World (reviewed here previously) fits nicely into the box of known expectations for a bio-punk fanbase, Mieville’s Embassytown is more of a hypercube—and if we’re really asking “what is punk?” then what could be more “punk” than his sidestepping of standardization?

[1] Mieville, China, Embassytown, iKindle location 1391

[2] Clute, John, “Science Fiction from 1980 to the Present,” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction

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