A couple of weeks ago for class, I read “Embasseytown” by China Mieville. For those who haven’t read the book, it’s heavily dependent/driven by language and what language really is/means. Mieville weaves a complex tale of a girl (Avice) who tells (through first person) the story of the Ariekei (a non-human race) and their demise and eventual saving through language.
This is my post from class. I talked about…you guessed it…language.
“What is she without words? With them she can think, have ideas, be reached. There isn’t a thought or fact in the world that can’t be hers.” – Anne Sullivan of Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker”
And truly what would she, or anyone else, be without language?
This quotation popped into my head many times while reading Embasseytown. The most prominent place was when the oratees (what the Ariekei are referred to when they become addicted to Language) finally realized that there was language other than Language. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m going to focus on language, and I’ve got quite a bit to say. It’s going to come in four sections that are as follows: strangeness of words beside certain other words, what are we without words, language as science fiction, and Avice.
-Strangeness of words beside certain other words
At the beginning of Embasseytown I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer mass of “new” words. I’m defining “new” as “made up by the author” for my purposes. There were just so many, and they just kept coming. “Automa,” “altoysterman,” “Dominday,” “Kedis,” “Shur'asi,” and the capital H on “Hosts”—all foreign. Never mind the reference to “a women” and “a men” and “shift parents.” There was just so much of “other” in Proem alone. I felt I should have been bothered by it, but, oddly enough, I wasn’t. Upon reading Proem a second time (before continuing to the rest of the book) it made much more sense.
Terre—Avice’s home. Interesting little place. And so on I read, chugging along very happily, fully accepting that I wasn’t on Earth.
“I was reminded of Laurel and Hardy, of Merlo and Rattleshape, of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote,” (Mieville 95).
Huh? I thought I wasn’t on Earth? Did I miss something? Don Quixote is clearly an Earth-culture thing. The feeling came again much later when a reference is made to “Lotus-eaters.” That’s a very specific reference to Homer’s Odyssey. Again, I felt I should have been very bothered by this, but I wasn’t really. The feeling was more of just a strange curiosity. It hit me that it was odd seeing such blatant classic literary culture (Don Quixote” and “Odysseus”) alongside talk of “shift parents” and “Hosts.”
The resulting question was “is this okay?” Clearly Mieville made it work, but at what cost? I finished the book. I did enjoy the book, but the nagging thoughts stayed at the back of my head. I suppose it’s possible for such references to travel great distances through space, but the concept just jumped out at me as weird.
(NOTE: It was brought to my attention through class discussions, that “Terre” is often used in science fiction to symbolize “Earth.” I’d recognized it as close to the Latin for “Earth,” but I hadn’t known about the sf tendency.)
And then there were the very human/Earth cuss words. That drew me into the story on a level I could relate to. Something bad happened, response “F*ck.” Perfect.
-what are we without words?
Anne Sullivan asked the question of Helen’s parents, and I asked it of Mieville.
The response, in both cases, violent, untrusting, misunderstanding. I had the pleasure of playing Anne Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” my senior year of high school, and it was interesting viewing Helen Keller through her eyes. Sullivan was presented with a six-year-old girl with no means of communication, no way to know herself or her world.
When Mieville identified the oratees as “the deaf,” I found it fitting. We gain 80% of our sensory intake via sight and (I can’t find or recall the exact percentage, but it is the next largest amount) through sound. Imagine your life for a second without these two senses. Without sight (as I can partially attest) there is still the spoken word. There is whatever language we grow up speaking. Without sound there is signing, but even signing is limited. It’s flat. We don’t realize it, but we use so many vocal emotions in a day—a conversation, and the slightest shift in our voice denotes a completely different emotion. That is lost with sign language.
Now imagine a life without either. There is Braille and signing into a person’s hand, but how difficult must that be? Without sight or sound we are reduced to what is within arm’s reach. The world shrinks so quickly. And without language—without the ability to communicate, we are nothing but entities floating in space.
Now add addiction to a limited form of language, and you have the oratees. Not a pretty picture. Before she learned to communicate and broke free of the shell confining her to herself, Helen Keller was angry, frustrated, lost. Until the oratees realize there is another form of language available to them, they are much the same.
And this segues nicely into my third topic.
-Language as science fiction
Science fiction challenges its readers to look forward at what we could become. It begs the question of what it means to be human. I’d like to argue that Mieville has answered this question in a unique way. Rather than focusing on the physicality of what makes us human or the brain function or the moral code, he has chosen to focus on something that is unique to mankind.
“Their language is organized noise, like all of ours are” (Mieville 55).
There are thousands of species on Earth. Many of them have basic languages. Language is not just giving names to things. It is being able to communicate. Humans have words for things. Dogs bark. Birds chirp. Bacteria do whatever the heck they do.
But that is all words, barks, chirps and whatevers allow for. They allow us to speak in the here and now. “This is a table.” “I see the table.” The next step comes in furthering what “table” means. This brings me back to my undergrad senior seminar and the painstaking hours it took before the professor got his points across. Here’s where I’m honest to a fault. I never thought I’d use this class again and hated the class with a burning, fiery passion. So, here goes.
Birds, dogs, and bacteria have language. They do not have a language system. What’s the difference? I just explained language. A language system is taking that language and applying it to things that are not right in front of us. If I’m standing in front of a table and I say “table,” everyone knows what I’m talking about. It’s right there. But if I’m in a room devoid of furniture and I say table, everyone else in the room immediately brings to mind their own vision of what a “table” is. That is a language system. The ability to apply words to things that are not present. In short, this is called conceptualizing.
“Yes. Something in the new language. New thinking. They were signifying now--there, elision, slippage between word and referent, with which they could play” (Mieville 310).
Conceptualizing—that’s what happens when Avice finally makes her breakthrough. The Ariekei become “human” in terms of language. They are no longer restricted to the here and now. They can conceptualize. And it is in this way that Mieville addresses what it means to be human. He says, and I whole-heartedly believe this to be true, that to be human is to be aware of the now, the before, and the will be.
And isn’t that what science fiction is about too? It is the genre that begs its readers to come with it, embrace it, follow it into a great and unknown future where anything is possible. It needs its readers to be able to conceptualize the current impossibilities it lays before them. It requires what the Ariekei gain—the ability to see what does not exist and accept that it could exist. Mieville has not only commented on the human condition, he has commented on the very heart of science fiction. And he has shown how the two are so much alike through one race’s journey from having language to having a language system.
Avice—interesting choice of name. I wonder if it was intentional.
Vice - An evil, degrading, or immoral practice or habit.
A slight personal failing; a foible
(Taken from the Free Online Dictionary)
Avice is defined many ways throughout the book. One of these ways is “simile.” As a simile she represents what holds the Ariekei back. While plagued by simile the Ariekei do all manner of terrible things. They are addicted, insensible maybe, but still do bad things (applies to first definition).
At the same time, simile is an imperfection in the Ariekei. It keeps them from understanding what they can be (second definition).
So when Avice (A-vice) breaks through to them, they give her (simile) up. They change to metaphor. They stop having to compare themselves to things they know and begin to be their own entities. By breaking “a vice” they grow.