Best selling science fiction: the language of the alien


So much science fiction  focuses on what a certain alien looks like and how it moves, but a few explore how living in an alien world might impact human society. Kristine Kathryn Rusch describes what accommodations might be necessary in the legal systems where humans unused to alien cultures and quirks transgress their laws and face life altering penalties.

In China Meiville’s Embassytown, language between human and alien is the focus.

If the name Norm Chomsky rings any bells for you, this story may be just your thing.

Cloaked in mystery and intrigue, the story is told from the viewpoint of Avice Benner Cho, who grew up on a distant colonial planet at the edge of the dark, leaves, travels among other worlds, and returns home.  She returns to the domed human settlement called Embassytown, on a world dominated by the enigmatic Ariekei, who are sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe.

EmbassytownOnly a few merged human ambassadors can speak the strange language. Doppels or clones that are altered and linked are bred on the home world of Bremen and sent as ambassadors to Embassytown. They are called Cal/Vin or Mag/Da and speak simultaneously and are the only means by which humans can communicate with the Areikei. Even so, communication is fraught with confusion and misunderstanding.

The aliens dominate the planet and, at first, are regarded almost as gods. They are referred to as “Hosts” and their advanced organic technology and resources support Embassytown. The two cultures live separately, even breathing different air. However, at times, they interface for diplomatic get togethers and trade and human children are taught to show respect and behave.

But the focus is on the attempt to devise a language capable of clearly communicating with the Hosts. As Scile says, “But when the Ariekei speak they do hear the soul in each voice. That’s how the meaning lives there. The words have got…got the soul in them. And it has to be there, the meaning.”

But most of the time human speech appears to be only noise, if even that.

The Hosts cannot, are incapable of, lying…until the home world of Bremen delivers a new ambassador rigged to affect the aliens and the fragile balance of coexistence is violently upset. Language becomes a drug that begins to destroy the Ariekei. War and violence threatens and Avice scrambles to figure out how to use language to stop the massacre of both human and Ariekei.

Embassytown reminded me of The Sparrow where the protagonist keeps reaching for the meaning of what really is happening and trying to understand the true nature of the aliens that live around her. Meiville’s imparts this feeling of true “alieness” with the Ariekei’s three stages of development and insect like appearance that houses a thinking brain. Their culture contains living, breathing homes, cars that are alive and organic technology.

The reader wants to understand this strange planet, so he/she reads on.

Confined to Avice’s viewpoint, the reader feels her frustration as she tries to decipher the behavior and reactions of the “hosts” to human language, and how they try to bend it in order to frame a lie.

This was interesting to me because I use the problems of first contact and communicating with aliens in the book I’m currently working on. Touching Crystal deals with human interface with two alien cultures… What do you say when you have no basis for a language?

If we ever do make contact with an alien culture, what obstacles to understanding and communication might we face? Would it involve polite misunderstandings, solved by an apology?

Or, in the case of Rusch’s world be transferred to the legal system to handle.

Or, in the case of Embassytown threaten the destruction of a whole sentient race because of an inability to understand how an alien mind communicates?


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2 responses to “Best selling science fiction: the language of the alien

  1. I started to read Embassytown but gave up a third into the novel and moved on to read other books. It’s still eyeing me from the shelf, but I haven’t picked it up again just yet. I found the premise and the aliens (Hosts) very intriguing, but the storytelling was… let’s say tiresome for me to swim through. I plan to read it through one day, though. 🙂

    It’s certainly fascinating to tackle the communication issues between humans and aliens as core of a story’s conflicts. It would be overwhelming for me to attempt it, but I definitely enjoy speculating about it. Hehe.


    • “tiresome to swim through”

      There’s a certain part of the style that does belabor and get too intellectual about language, especially in the early parts of the book. So, readers beware here. I was in that mood though, at the time, (summer languor) hoping for something to happen and eventually, it did. Although I’m still trying to get my head around the way the aliens communicated, the story picked up and things got exciting towards the end. I know you like to ponder on the alien, and this story gave me a taste of “alienness”…which is rare in most books for me.
      Nominated for both Hugo and Nebula in 2011, so worth a try.


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