Book review: Embassytown

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EMBASSYTOWN China Miéville Macmillan, £17.99

CHINA Miville is the only novelist to have won the Arthur C Clarke Award three times, and the only author to have scooped the Hugo, the British Science Fiction Association Award and the World Fantasy Award in the same year.

His new book, Embassytown, is being published alongside his entire backlist, in gorgeous new covers; but the publishers seem to have missed a trick. The tag line, surely, should be "Miville: The Writer Too Good For The Booker". Since he writes in almost every form except middle-brow social realism, praise of his work is almost perpetually qualified with the damning phrase "for a genre writer".

Embassytown is Miville's first science-fiction novel: his previous works have been fantasy, but often spliced, with crime (The City & The City), Westerns (Iron Council), maritime adventure (The Scar) and comedy capers (Kraken). He is widely regarded as the chief proponent of what is being called the "New Weird", with such authors as Jeff VanderMeer and Sarah Monette. The New Weird is a melange of high-brow ideas and pulp settings and tropes; it is a radically unromantic version of fantasy with a pedigree encompassing both HP Lovecraft and Italo Calvino.

Science-fiction fans will be familiar with the acronym FOTW - Forehead of the Week - a sarcastic reference to all those television series where every planet is populated by humanoids with two arms, two legs and two eyes. Embassytown features aliens that are genuinely and thrillingly alien.

At its very serious core, it is a novel about language. The exotic, strange imagination at work is not genre wrapping to the novel, but intrinsic to it. The heroine, Avice, lives in Embassytown, a city of humans in a liveable shell on an utterly alien world. The indigenous inhabitants are called the Hosts, and communication with them is limited to a class of Ambassadors. The Hosts speak Language, in which they cannot lie, and which is a one-to-one correspondence between word and world.

When a new Ambassador, EzRa, arrives, it precipitates a crisis, in which Avice will have to speak with the impossible Hosts. She has a special relationship with them: as a child, she became a simile for them. Because Language is so precise and perfect, they require similes in order to express ambiguous or imaginary things. Avice is also "the girl who ate in pain what was given her".

In a book about the limitations of language, Miville keeps his aliens fuzzy. There are no set-piece descriptions, but a drip-drip of references to fanwings, hooves, eye-stalks and double-mouths. It challenges the reader to imagine, in a book fundamentally concerned with the role of language as an imaginative liberation. Miville has taken the theoretical and philosophical insights of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Paul Ricoeur and turned them into story. It is not, however, a tract. There is a genuine emotional transaction at the novel's climax.

The world beyond Embassytown is similarly eldritch. It is a place where "herds of powerplants and factories graze", and an explosion leaves "smears of yolk and foetal machines". It's a universe so richly rendered - and with so many almost throwaway details - it's hard not to suspect that Miville has other narratives to tell about this place. With each book Miville becomes more and more ambitious, with a profusion of ideas and images on each page that makes other contemporary books look thin and reductive.

In his previous books, Miville's political awareness has been evident: we've had a trade union for supernatural familiars, a city where your class determines what you see, a permanent haven of radicals wandering in the wildness. Embassytown is his least ostensibly and most intrinsically political book. It poses the great revolutionary question: how can you think what has never been thought before? And will it be unthinkable?

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 April 2011