Embassytown is told as a sort of memoir of a woman who grew up in a small colony on the edge of nowhere. She lives in a small human-populated area of a city formed by aliens she (and most humans) know little about. Like many children that grow up in small towns, she dreams of getting out — and eventually does leave to travel the universe.
But things get really interesting upon her return when she discovers how much she never really know about the place of her birth… and reacts to a threat that could destroy it all.
Embassytown is a story about language, meaning, culture, exploration, and understanding. That’s a lot to pack into a few hundred pages, but the book is divided into different sections so that the first part of the book almost feels like a different story than that which follows.
It also takes a while to understand what the heck is going on at all, because Miéville starts using language and slang of the future right out of the gate without giving the reader any sort of guide to help them make sense of unfamiliar words.
It’s a bit disorienting, but I find that it makes the story more engaging than the alternative – page after page of exposition. Miéville’s use of language is critical to the story, but since he doesn’t take time to explain every last detail, he can focus on the plot while some other novelists flesh out a rather thin story with large passages explaining why the details are important.
There are also passages near the middle of the story that feel a bit slow, as if you really are reading a diary and the editor didn’t bother to cull the boring bits to make the narrative stronger. I can’t imaging getting through Embassytown in one sitting. I read it over the course of a week — and in some ways I’m glad I did, because the story takes place over an extended period of time, so letting a day or two pass between putting the book down and picking it up again made it feel like time really had passed between one page and the next.
But overall, Miéville creates an intriguing narrative set in the far future which asks intelligent questions about how meaning is conveyed through language — something that’s important in any time period.