China Miéville's "Embassytown" hurtles you through a linguistics thriller on another planet

Embassytown is a breakneck tale of suspense about weird philosophy and a deeply alien culture. It's disturbing and beautiful by turns. And yes - China Miéville's new novel is one of his best.

Spoilers ahead...

Embassytown is a riveting trip through a monster-haunted subspace called the immer, and down into a tiny human ghetto called Embassytown on a planet called Areika, whose alien inhabitants cannot understand any language but their own. Embassytown, where our hero Avice grew up, is a tiny region in the middle of a vast, biotechnological Areikene city, where mostly human immigrants live. They trade with the Arekei locals, mostly for their incredibly sophisticated "biorigging," basically living factories and technologies that no other intelligent species is able to duplicate. But the planet sits at the edge of known subspace, in a particularly stormy part of the immer, so it's a kind of backwater wonderland.

Avice doesn't quite realize how much of a wonderland it is until she becomes an immerser - an immer pilot -and meets her husband Scile, a linguist who is fascinated by the completely unique properties of Areikene language, known only as capital-l Language. Unlike every other species with language, the Areikei don't distinguish between language and reality. To them, Language isn't symbolic - it is one with the things it describes. For this reason, they have no writing (too symbolic) and can't lie (that would be describing something that isn't). Also, they can only understand Language when it is spoken by a biological entity with thought behind it - because after all, Language, thought and reality are one. They can't understand Language synthesized by computers, which is a big problem since no single human can pronounce Language. The Ariekei, you see, have two mouths.

Scile drags Avice back to her old home, hoping to become the first linguist to truly understand the Ariekei. The only way humans have been able to set up relations with the creatures - who look just like something out of HP Lovecraft, covered in eyestalks, wings, and walking on hooves - is by bioengineering human clones, attached via biotech implants, who are able to simulate being a single mind with two mouths. These double humans are called Ambassadors, and they negotiate every transaction between human and Ariekei.

Once the two of them get to Embassytown, we begin to learn more about the political economy of the planet - and how it fits into the broader human power called Bremen which controls many local planets. The marvels of the biological city that Miéville describes are no more or less incredible than the thought experiment he conducts with the Arkeikei - creatures for whom there is no division between symbol and referent, for whom word is thought. As we plunge with Avice into the complicated politics of Embassytown, Miéville ratchets up the suspense - and the whimsy.

We visit a "Festival of Lies," where Ambassadors entertain the aliens by lying (they are endlessly awed that somebody could call a red bulb green), and the Ariekei try to do it themselves. We also discover that the Ariekei use humans to create similes so that they can talk in a near-symbolic way. Avice herself is one of their most popular similes, and the many meanings she's transmuted into become integral to the story.

Embassytown asks what would happen if the human penchant for symbolism were to infect the Ariekei, and the answer is truly incredible. There's a kind of delightfully dark inventiveness here that showcases a writer at the height of his creative powers. Every new revelation is both a terrific plot twist and a thought experiment you'll want to linger over and ponder for weeks to come. When a strange Ambassador arrives in Embassytown, a non-cloned pair created by a new kind of technological link, their words have an unexpected and horrific effect on the Ariekei. And the city goes to war with itself - a war over language.

I cannot emphasize enough how terrific this novel is. It's definitely one of the best books I've read in the past year, perfectly balanced between escapism and otherworldly philosophizing. If there's any flaw here it's in Avice's character, who pulls us through the story at a breakneck pace but never seems to have any motives of her own other than to figure out what her husband and lovers are up to. But by the end, she does have a motive, which is to save Embassytown and the Ariekei from war, using the power of symbolic thought.

If you are fascinated by stories of genuinely alien cultures, you need to read Embassytown (it comes out in May). And if you're a fan of China Miéville, author of The City & The City and Kraken, you're in for a treat: This is his first pure science fiction novel.