Tag Archives: China Miéville

THE CITY & THE CITY – China Miéville (2009)

The City & The CityI enjoyed The City & The City a lot. It was only the second book I’ve read by China Miéville. My first was Embassytown, and while that was fun, it was very flawed too. So, my expectations for Miéville’s most hyped book weren’t exactly high, and to make things worse, reading the comparisons to Kafka on the back put my inner-cynic on high alert. Still, it won 6 awards, and its premise really piqued my interest.

First things first, this is not really ‘fantasy’ fantasy. And for sure it’s not science fiction either. Some label this book as near-future, but it is most definitely not. The City & The City is simply speculative fiction. The novel is set in the timeframe of its publication: the very beginning of the 21st century, on our very own planet Earth, in a fictional Eastern European city that is a kind of double city. Two cities exist in and on the space of one, interweaving, but separate – Iron Curtain kind of separate. This is not to be taken as something magical, metaphysical, hallucinatory or fantastical. Both Besźel and Ul Quma are very, very real. While there is a sense of wonder for the reader, discovering both cities’ interwoven workings, it is all perfectly possible & explainable. It’s not New Weird fiction either – a genre tagged to some of Miéville’s other novels. There’s actually nothing impossibly weird about this double city, other than that it doesn’t exist in our reality. It could exist though, and that fact is one of the strengths of the book.

Something else it is not, is Kafka (*). It starts Kafkaesque though, and Miéville explicitly acknowledges Franz Kafka’s influence in the preface. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the political, bureaucratic stuff is more part of the setting, rather than one of the themes. Another crucial difference with Kafka is that The City & The City isn’t an existential book. Continue reading

EMBASSYTOWN – China Miéville (2011)

Embassytown– MINOR SPOILER ALERT ABOUT THE LANGUAGE ASPECT –

As a linguist, I must say that one of the basic premises of the book – that a race of aliens can’t use metaphors/signifiers (or even think about the concept of the content of the metaphor) unless they refer to things that happened in reality first – is totally unbelievable from a linguistic point of view.

There are a number of reasons for this, one being that the aliens are able to communicate about concepts in need of a new signifier, so that they stage events in reality to use a figure of speech later. If they are able to communicate about them, the new signifier isn’t really needed in the first place, and they are able to think about them too. Logically, this short-circuits.

Also, figures of speech in human language that are based on metaphors start out as referring to reality too, and only in a later stadium get their additional meaning as figure of speech. There is nothing complicated or deep about this, nor does it alter the way we think.

Sadly, since to book is a bit pretentious about its concepts, and if you know a thing or two about the principles of language, it makes the story fall flat. It’s not only back cover posturing, but also the heavy-handedness of the theme in the book itself, the kinda silly wordplay with TwoNames, etc.

On the other hand, a big enough part of the rest of the story, its world building, the depiction of the aliens (as well as their double voiced language) is often interesting, with some original ideas. Characterization isn’t great though, and some parts of the book are pretty boring.

Conclusion: Embassytown is an okay book, but it is not to be taken too seriously as a philosophical/linguistic sci-fi treatise on the Saphir-Worph hypothesis.

originally written on the 27th of January, 2015