Linguistic sci-fi in Embassytown

The sun still rose, and the shops sold things, and people went to work. It was a slow catastrophe. —China Miéville, Embassytown

Science fiction offers endless scope for linguistic experimentation, and there’s no lack of creativity at a purely lexical level: new terminology abounds in hard SF, weird fiction, and other speculative genres. But I haven’t read many SF novels where language is a central theme, though I’m sure that says more about my underexploration of the genre than it does about SF itself.

Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 are notable examples. But they are several decades old, and – though I’m probably an exception here – the ideas and storytelling in both books underwhelmed me. So when I read China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011), I felt there was finally a linguistic science-fiction book I could recommend unreservedly, should anyone ask for one.

Embassytown does not admit of simple summary, so I won’t try, but I do want to describe some of its linguistic ideas. There will be spoilers. For proper reviews of the book, read Ursula K. Le Guin in the Guardian and Sam Thompson in the LRB.

Ballantine Books edition of Embassytown, showing a strange city in distant silhouette and, above it, a dense cloud of drifting letters

‘Embassytown’ by China Miéville, Del Rey Books edition

Our hero, Avice, is an ‘immerser’ (a traveller in outer space) who has returned to her home, Embassytown, an outpost of Bremen, on the planet Arieka. The native Ariekei, more politely ‘Hosts’, speak a language (known as Language) with peculiar qualities. For one thing, speech somehow is thought: the Hosts are literal-minded in ways that make no theoretical sense but propel the plot and fire the imagination.

Avice meets her future husband, Scile, a linguist, at a conference that’s a veritable xenolingoganza, where we hear about, among other strangeness, a population that communicates via regurgitation: ‘Pellets embedded with enzymes in different combinations are sentences, which their interlocutors eat.’ Embassytown itself has multiple languages, including an English-derived dialect called Anglo-Ubiq.

When cosmonauts from Bremen encounter a sentient species, they use a method called Accelerated Contact Linguistics (ACL) – ‘a specialty crossbred from pedagogics, receptivity, programming and cryptography’ – to communicate with aliens as rapidly as possible:

In the logs of those early journeys, the excitement of the ACLers is moving. On continents, on worlds vivid and drab, they record first moments of understanding with menageries of exots. Tactile languages, bioluminescent words, all varieties of sounds that organisms can make. Dialects comprehensible only as palimpsests of references to everything already said, or in which adjectives are rude and verb unholy. I’ve seen the trid diary of an ACLer barricaded in his cabin, whose vessel has been boarded by what we didn’t then know as Corscans – it was first contact. He’s afraid, as he should be, of the huge things battering at his door, but he’s recording his excitement at having just understood the tonal structures of their speech.

When the ACLers arrived on Arieka, they quickly got down to work at understanding the Hosts’ language. It turned out to be polyvocal, with two voices intertwined: ‘Two sounds – they can’t speak either voice singly – inextricable by the chance coevolution of a vocalising ingestion mouth and what was once probably a specialised organ of alarm.’

The ACLers systematically mapped Language, soon grasping its syntax despite the usual ‘share of astonishments’ in an alien language. The Hosts were patient with, even intrigued by, these efforts, though they showed no interest in learning Anglo-Ubiq. Eventually the linguists were able to reproduce the sound of Language synthetically. But when their machines mimicked, precisely, the native greetings,

The Hosts listened, and did not understand a single sound.

It turns out that Language, to be understood, needs a mind behind it. Because the machines were not sentient, what they produced was not Language; the Hosts heard only ‘empty barks’. Enter Ambassadors: cloned humans who, through bio-engineering and neurological entraining, share enough sentience to speak Language.

Pan Macmillan edition of 'Embassytown': a black cover with white line across the middle; above, an orange dome; below, a blue, spaceship-like underbelly

‘Embassytown’ by China Miéville, Pan Macmillan edition

In Language, speech is thought, so the very notion of lying is nonsensical to Hosts – but not for the Ambassadors, who ‘could lie as well in Language as in our own language, to Hosts’ unending delight.’ This delight is ritualised in a Festival of Lies, where Ambassadors say self-evidently false things in Language, thrilling the Hosts with semiotic scrambling and paradoxical potential.

Some humans become living similes in Language. The Hosts ask people to perform an action, and they can then refer to those people in Language to express an idea or extend their understanding – to help them think. ‘Everything in Language is a truth claim. So they need the similes to compare things to, to make true things that aren’t there yet, that they need to say.’

Avice, as a child, did the Hosts this service and became for them ‘the girl who ate what was given her’.

In the main my simile was used to describe a kind of making do. Spanish Dancer and its friends, though, by some odd rhetoric, by emphasis on a certain syllable, spoke me rather to imply potential change. That was the kind of panache that could get Hosts ecstatic. I had no idea whether many of them had always been so fascinated by language, or whether that obsession resulted from their interactions with the Ambassadors, and with us strange Languageless things.

This impossible Language baffles Avice’s husband: ‘Words don’t signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language? How do their numbers work? It makes no sense.’ It’s not meant to. Allowing Miéville this trick of impossibility, or underspecificity, means the alien Language remains truly alien, exciting in sketched form – typographical and orthographical tricks are used to render it – but retaining the uncanny feel of something beyond our ability to make cohere in our own minds.

I mentioned lexical creativity, and there’s no shortage of it here (I previously examined the use of henchperson in Miéville’s novel Kraken). Embassytown offers novel verbings (basilisking, similed), neologisms (floaking, bansheetech, immernaut, auntfather, shivabomb), and rare plurals (autos-da-fé of heretic technology). The book supplies so many peripheral pleasures that I can’t do them justice here.

But I will mention Ehrsul, an advanced humanoid AI, as the excerpt below shows how deft is Miéville’s treatment of some of the sci-fi tropes it’s steeped in. Though Ehrsul can change her physical incarnation, ‘she only ever used one corpus, according to some Terrephile sense of politesse or accommodation.’

She’d been in Embassytown for longer than the lifespan of anyone I knew. Her turingware was way beyond local capabilities, and more than the equal of any I’d seen in the out. Spending time with most automa is like accompanying someone brutally cognitively damaged, but Ehrsul was a friend. ‘Come save me from the village idiots,’ she sometimes said to me after downloading updates alongside other automa.

‘Do you joke to yourself when no one’s watching?’ I had asked her once.

‘Does it matter?’ she had said at last, and I felt scolded. It had been rude and adolescent to raise the question of her personality, her apparent consciousness, of whether it was for my benefit. It was a tradition that none of the few automs whose behaviour was human enough to prompt the question would answer it.

Even so inconspicuous a phrase as that bigram at last in Ehrsul’s reply suggests possibilities a reader can rummage around in without ever, as the book progresses, forming a definite conclusion or needing to. And so it is with the bigger ideas in Embassytown, a linguistic thought experiment artfully embedded in a superior bit of weird world-building.

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11 Responses to Linguistic sci-fi in Embassytown

  1. The movie Arrival is about language and its influence on the mind. It is what is called psycholinguistics, linguistic relativity, linguistic determinism, or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. There is a strong and weak version, although interestingly Sapir and Whorf never argued for the strong version.

    Another interesting example of language in speculative fiction is HBO’s recent series, Westworld. It is partly influenced by Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, which directly involves language. Jaynes’ focus was on metaphor, culture, identity, and consciousness — his having defined the latter in a specific way that confuses many people. By consciousness, he meant an metaphorically narratized and interorized space where a self-conscious identity can operate.

    There have been a quite a bit of fiction dealing with language. I can’t say I’d be able to make a list offhand. Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs were both interested in the power of language. WSB took his ideas from many sources, such as Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics. Of course, we can’t forget about George Orwell who focused on language in terms of social control, a similar focus as WSB.

    At the moment, I happen to be reading Jack Vance’s Languages of Pao. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it is enjoyable. The introduction describes it as being a mid-career work where the author was still using more genre tropes while beginning to experiment more. If you’d prefer more serious speculative fiction that deals with this kind of thing, I’d highly recommend Ursula K. Le Guin (e.g., The Dispossessed).

    I just did a quick web search. Here are a couple of articles that might be of interest to you:

    https://www.princeton.edu/~browning/sf.html
    https://linguistlist.org/issues/21/21-921.html
    http://www.academia.edu/1727003/Monstrous_Linguistics_The_Use_of_the_Sapir-Whorf_Hypothesis_in_Science_Fiction
    http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10429
    http://www.replicatedtypo.com/strange-tongues-science-fiction-and-language-1/6753.html
    http://www.foreigntongues.eu/arrival-translation-sapir-whorf-hypothesis/
    http://tenser.typepad.com/tenser_said_the_tensor/2005/01/ithe_languages__1.html
    https://femscifi.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/review-ursula-le-guins-the-dispossessed/

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for the suggestions, most of which I’m familiar with. I’ve read PKD, Burroughs, Orwell, and Korzybski, and admire them all, but among them the linguistic stuff is not sci-fi, and the sci-fi stuff is not particularly linguistic.

      Le Guin is a writer I’ve not read enough of, and there’s a few on the shelf here, so I’ll move her up the to-read pile and will follow your other links as time allows. The Linguist List piece mentions a few books I liked, such as Golding’s The Inheritors and Stephenson’s Snow Crash, so that’s promising.

      I liked Arrival a lot, and featured it in a linkfest in December. Westworld was pretty awful, I thought, though I’ve long found Jaynes’s ideas intriguing (if not exactly convincing). This post has a long list of linguistic-themed films, and I discuss linguistic relativity in this old book review.

      • I tend to think of SF as speculative fiction, rather than as science fiction. I have more interest in imagination broadly than in hard science.

        For some writers like PKD, the science fiction aspect often can be arbitrary. WSB also would sometimes use SF elements, both as speculative and science (e.g., the weird disease in Wild Boys), but obviously he never was attracted to genre tropes.

        I might mention something about Snow Crash. One of the inspirations for it was Jaynes’ bicameralism. It was key to the plot, related to mind virus and religion. I’m a bit fuzzy about the details for it’s been many years since I read it.

        As for Westworld, there does seem to be a lot of love it or hate it response. I enjoyed it immensely, but I understand why it wouldn’t appeal to others.

        I’ll check out your other posts. I forget which of your older posts I’ve seen.

        • Stan Carey says:

          It’s a long time since I read Snow Crash as well, and I read it before Jaynes’s Origin of Consciousness…, which probably wasn’t the better order.

          As for terminology, I like ‘speculative fiction’ too but tend to use ‘science fiction’ (or an abbreviation), loosely, without implying a strong scientific element, so I think of the two as close. ‘SF’ allows either to apply, at least in my own mind.

          Stanisław Lem, who has featured on this blog a couple of times, wrote a description of sci-fi in Microworlds that I was very taken by: he said it involves ‘the art of putting hypothetical premises into the very complicated stream of sociopsychological occurrences’. Often all that’s needed is a single hypothetical twist, and away you go.

  2. If you’re interested in an up-to-date presentation of linguistic relativity, I’d recommend the book on the topic by Caleb Everett. There has been a ton of research done in recent years. He also wrote a book about language and cognition in context of numeral systems or, in some cases, lack thereof.

    BTW he is the son of Daniel Everett, the linguist who studied the Piraha. Caleb spent part of his childhood among the Piraha and other tribes. The father also has some books about language with a new one coming out later in the year.

  3. Rand Lee says:

    Miéville is one of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers for a number of reasons. Great article. As for science fiction language creation, I invented a language for an alien race in my novel, “centaur Station,” and used it throughout the first draft (with translations of course). But my beta readers disliked it so much (it slowed down the pace of the text, they said) I had to cut it by 90%. Sigh.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Rand. I love Miéville’s work too, as you probably noticed, and there’s still quite a few of his books I haven’t read.

      That’s a pity about your invented language – maybe you’ll find (or have found) another outlet for it? I have no experience of creating a conlang, but I’ve written about a few here, including Ithkuil, Esperanto, Klingon, Trigedasleng, Na’vi, and Tolkien’s Elvish languages.

  4. There are a couple other books I might recommend. A strong position is taken by Vyvyan Evans in The Language Myth. And for a broad and balanced analysis, there is John Leavitt’s Linguistic Relativities.

    I’ve written about the topic a number of times. Here is a post that was entirely dedicated to the color issue in linguistics. I do have a great interest in this, even though I haven’t directly written on it a lot. It mostly comes up in a larger context, specifically in relation to the nature of the mind. That is why Daniel Everett was interesting me lately. And that has extended into my interest in Jaynes.

    My views on linguistic relativism aren’t entirely settled. But I do see them directly linked to the work of such thinkers as Jaynes, McGilchrist, Luhrmann, etc — those dealing with consciousness and culture, language and voice-hearing (but I can’t recall that any of those thinkers directly discussed Sapir-Whorf). In particular, Jaynes’ explanation of metaphorical language does make a lot of sense to me.

    If language itself isn’t causing all of the vast differences seen in the historical evidence, anthropological record and social science research, then maybe language as a proxy is often an easier-to-detect indicator of cultural and environmental causes. Or as in the case of Jaynes’ bicameral theory, maybe the language represents the underlying metaphors operating within the mind. Whatever it is, there is something strange involved and our own cultural blinders are problematic. Language seems a useful path of exploration, but of course there are many aspects involved.

    Even Sapir and Whorf weren’t linguistic determinists. They saw language as part of various factors that interact. Sapir was an anthropologist which, as with Everett’s work, brings a larger perspective.

    I’m not sure how all of this relates to SF. Jaynes has influenced quite a number of fiction writers and directly inspired some fiction writing. But it’s harder to trace the influence of linguistic anthropology as linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism, not being a single theory but a category of theories.

    At its most basic, the argument is that language has some impact on human cognition, perception, and behavior. It would be a rare writer who would entirely disagree with that proposition. Obviously, the power and influence of language is a great interest to writers. Few writers would want to think their writing is impotent in influencing readers.

    The issue is what is that influence and how far does it go. It would be interesting to know which writers have actively sought to deal with that issue in their fiction. I suspect there might be a fair number out there, if one knew where to look.

  5. stuartnz says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for linking to this on Twitter. Embassytown was a fascinating, challenging and immensely worthwhile read. I also enjoyed your blogpost about it more than Le Guin’s review – her condescending use of judgmental phrases like “trash forms of science fiction” and “the good stuff… is not for lazy minds” was irksome. Miéville’s book was “good stuff”, but it was also a lot of fun to read, and that’s important to me, since I read fiction for fun.

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