Sunday, 1 July 2012

Book of the week: Embassytown

This was a rare occasion when I bought a book that I didn't know much about. I had read three books by China Mieville. I read King Rat some years ago and remember it vaguely as disgusting. I absolutely loved The City and the City, that Julia had recommended (if I had been aware that it was by the author of King Rat I probably wouldn't have wanted to read it). I started Kraken and gave up after a hundred pages. But someone who has written The City and the City is worth attention, and there are also people whose opinion I value who rank Mieville high. I was browsing amazon to fill up my tablet for travel, and there was one of those silly recommendations: “If you liked X, you may also like Y”. Or perhaps just: “Most popular now”. I didn't read the synopsis.

I am not an avid SF reader so I may be quite wrong about my sense of novelty, but in the first place I don't care whether it is SF or anything else. No spoilers, but this novel is about the use of language. Not about the characters' use of language or even the society's use of language, but about the writer's use of language. You read the first ten pages, and you don't understand anything because all words are strange. You can clearly see that they are nouns, verbs and adjectives, but the meaning is hidden – so far. Then gradually all these empty signifiers are provided with referents, that are also strange and unfamiliar, but it works. And this is such a brilliant example of the interdependence of form and content: the novel is about language, but it also uses language in a way it propagates for.It is also an example of what you can do with language in fiction - possible worlds and all that. Playing with words. It reminded me of a maths colleague explaining high-order dimensions: don't try to visualise it, just think. I hope nobody comes with the bizarre idea of making a movie out of it. I am sure somebody will. 

I wonder whether the author has been reading the same books as I the past couple of years. The novel oozes of cognitive poetics.

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