Though China Miéville has denounced J.R.R. Tolkien as anti-modern, reactionary, and "a wen on the arse of fantasy literature,"he went out of his way in a 2009 guest post on Amazon's Omnivoracious blog to state that they share a "cordial dislike of allegory."Emphasizing the difference between allegory and metaphor, Miéville notes "the latter is fecund, polysemic, generative of meanings but evasive of stability,"and celebrates the de facto father of world-building's refusal to believe "the notion that a work of fiction is... primarily, solely, or really 'about' something else..."
In Embassytown, his third novel in as many years, Miéville celebrates metaphor as fiction which can refract, distort, and critique our own world, and also as the greatest weapon in human language's arsenal. It is Miéville's best novel set outside of his fictional universe of Bas-Lag: more controlled than 2010's Kraken, more wide-ranging and rule-bending that 2009's The City and the City, and not saddled with the sloppy first-novel messes of King Rat. It is also his first novel to deal with the familiar sci-fi trope of alien contact.
Said aliens are called (by whose leave we are never quite sure) the Ariekei (also known as Hosts, as everything in this book has a double), whose language (known as Language) can only be spoken by two-mouthed beings and whose "[w]ords don't signify: they are their referents." This makes inter-species communication problematic, but the humans (or Terre) who populate Embassytown, a semi-autonmous outpost on the edge of known space, have turned the situation to their advantage. They have developed, through surgery and tech, doubled humans who can speak Language, known as Ambassadors. Trade is possible; any kind of deep understanding is not. Meanwhile, beneath the placid exterior of the Hosts, a seismic shift roils, as a small cadre of Ariekei becomes obsessed with teaching themselves how to lie.
The story is narrated in precise, couched, and deliberate sentences by Avice Benner Cho, a living simile in Language, a strange and unwanted honor, which, though she does her best not to think about it, makes her far more important to Embassytown politics than she suspects. A prodigal daughter of Embassytown, Cho is also an Immerser, who deckhands ships in the "immer,"the strange space which enables interstellar travel. The immer, like much terminology in the novel, is never quite explained, for the same reasons that the Hosts are never fully physically described and that familiar words, such as "week"and "husband,"take on new connotations. Miéville isn't just skipping the too-familiar sci-fi pitfall of over-explicating the created world, but showing us that we can never see the same things as Avice, because the gap between us is unbridgeable, even by words. Miéville is just as interested in radical politics, cross-species lust, existential terror, and the mechanics of revolution as always, but in Embassytown he is most concerned with poising his readers on the event horizon of meaning and waiting for our inarticulate response.