Here is an excerpt of the very first paragraph:
THE CHILDREN of the embassy all saw the boat land. Their teachers and shiftparents had had them painting it for days. One wall of the room had been given over to their ideas. It's been centuries since any voidcraft vented fire, as they imagined this one doing, but it's a tradition to represent them with such trails. When I was young, I painted ships the same way.From reading this you can pretty much gather what you're in for. Unfamiliar words like "shiftparents" and "voidcraft" are not defined, there is no sense of location, time or any of the other five W's. Throughout the prologue, you are only given a sense of mood, but nothing really tangible. Miélville perhaps supposes that the reader will be revisiting the prologue later, when it makes more sense.
After the prologue, there is a preface. Chapter 1 doesn't happen for a while, but here is where you are given background information on the narrator, the world she is from and the reason she is going back. Miélville drops in an outsider character, Scile, the narrator's husband, as a neat way to give a little bit of exposition. Scile is a language academic, and he wants to study the natives of Embassytown and their culture. During his time in the book, he explains everything that the Embassytowners already know, but have never articulated themselves.
What I like about the preface, or the "proem" as it's described in the book, is that Miélville gives you an opportunity to make a choice. If this is your kind of thing, then read on, but if not, then you can put the book down and never pick it up again. You may have a little bug eating away at the back of your brain, a bug called regret, gnawing away at the fact you might have put down the greatest story you'll ever read in your life, but if it's not your thing it's not your thing. That's OK. If you read on, however, then you have just signed The Contract. In my situation my housemate who lent me the book told me I had to read it anyway, not that I wouldn't have if I had the choice.
The sole condition of The Contract is that you are trapped in a binding agreement that you can not put this book down until you have reached the last page. One paragraph after another, the story keeps escalating, and building layers, like a snowball rolling uphill. This book may easily be found in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section, but it's real genre is Thriller, but also just happens to be situated on a cool alien planet at the edge of the known Universe, with properly alien aliens.
I still have trouble imagining what the "Hosts" look like, at one point they are described as something like "insect-horse-crab-coral chimeric beasts", but I imagine if this was made as some kind of film (which would have impossibly-high expectations), there would be a creature-shop department employed by people straight out of a lunatic asylum, or whatever politically correct term they call it now days.
There is a kind of technology in Embassytown called "biorigging"--this basically means every technology is actually a live organism. Imagine a large fleshy gun with a mouth and teeth, and when you pull the trigger its mouth opens and howls a flaming projectile. Even the houses are alive, the wallpaper is actually its skin, and through some orifice, like a fireplace or something, is where you have to feed it. I can't help but think that Miélville is probably a huge GWAR fan or something.
I won't go too specific into the strange world of Embassytown and its story, it probably takes about as long to explain as reading the story itself. I'd like to think the story is very much about language and symbolism, about perception and reality, and probably related to Lacanian psychology. If you're not a thinker, you don't have to think that it's really about anything, as the story itself is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. At least that's what it did to me.
In summary, a great read, highly recommended, I should check out more of Miélville's stuff.
Up next: TIMEQUAKE by Kurt Vonnegut.
The following quote is by Phillip K. Dick, when he took a questionerre for Science Fiction writers back in 1969. It is not about Timequake (which was written in 1996), it's about Vonnegut's first book Player Piano, but it may as well be about any of his books:
Question 11: What do you consider the greatest weakness of science fiction today?(I should note that Embassytown has a fair bit of exploration of the relationship between sexes, although it's such a different planet and different culture, it keeps the characters at their core fundamentally human)
Its inability to explore the subtle, intricate relationships that exist between the sexes. Men, in their relationship with women, get themselves into the most goddamn difficult circumstances, and SF ignores--or is unable to deal with--this fundamental aspect of adult life. Therefore SF remains preadult, and therefore appeals--more or less--to preadults. If SF explored the man-woman aspect of life it would not lose its readers as those readers reach maturity. The novel Player Piano is an exception to this, and I suggest that every SF fan and especially every would-be writer study again and again the details of this superb novel, which deal specifically with the relationship of the protagonist and his wife.