The Alien Nextdoor. Mieville, Monsters and Metaphors

SPOILER WARNING: (You should definately read the book before this post!)

First things first, this isn’t a review of Embassytown.  Other people have written far clearer and smarter assessments of Mieville’s Language/Disaster/Philosophy/Spaceship mashup  than I ever could. Suffice to say its bizarre, brilliant and utterly gripping.

This is just a note. An exercise in pattern spotting. There seem to be some trends running through the bald-one’s oeuvre that are winding themselves together in Embassytown. Trends around the theme of ‘The Alien’, and I thought I’d share three of them, see if anyone wanted to argue:


1) Weird-ass creature shit

That’s a technical term. Mieville generally has a yen for Frankensteinism. He spawns creatures prodigiously, but most of them are an aggregate of two or three familiar concepts. A scarab-beetle-woman, say. Or a city-antibody.  Every now and then though, Mieville gives us a monster that’s harder to picture. One such is the Slake-Moths of Perdido Street Station. They are described with loving detail, but piecemeal. A chitinous forelimb here, a fractal, non-euclidean wing there. The camera never really draws back to show the whole monster at once.

The Hosts of Embassytown are described with alot of the same features ( chitin, wings, pointy limbs) and with the same refusal to give a handy umbrella-concept to hang our mental image on. The effect however, is very different. In PSS the writing is Lovecraftian: horror through extreme alienation, the writing provokes our arachnid reflex.  In Embassytown on the other hand, while the Hosts occasionally do horrifying things, the suggestion that their alien-ness implies horror, has been shorn away. The hosts horrify and endear in the same way as humans do – contingently.  Not because of what they are, but because of what they choose, and the circumstances that force their hands (or rather, giftwings).

2) Border-Breach Trauma

“My city is not your city” King Rat tells a traumatised, semi-willing abductee Saul in Mieville’s first novel. “It shares all of its points, but none of it’s properties.  The idea of two  incommensurable cities, ‘cheek by jowl, but cross the border at your peril’ has been present in his writing for alot longer the The City and The City.

But travel between Mieville’s twin polities is growing easier. In King Rat, only Saul really transitioned from one world to the other. Other characters were brushed by King Rat’s universe, but they mostly wound up brutalized. In TC&TC unlicensed emigrees are disappeared,even the unwitting ones. There are protocols for transfer, but they are inaccessible to most, and a huge psychological taboo for all.

Embassytown’s split cities have more porous borders. The living flesh city of the Hosts, with it’s throat-pipes and doglike batteries, cradles the human ghetto. There are taboos, true. Crossing over does come with risk. You can’t breathe the air there, one character nearly dies trying, but there are ways around this. As the novel progresses, more and more humans head into the host city, for an encounter with the weird. They do so in the midst of crisis, true. But in Embassytown this drastic emmigration is the response to disaster, it does not invite it.

3) The idea your culture cannot understand

This trope reared it’s head in Perdido St. Station, via the dark past of Yagharek: the Garuda.

Isaac, PSS’s protagonist, is told that this bird-man has commited ‘Choice-theft’: a crime so egregious in Garuda culture that he’s been exiled for it, but one that Isaac could never comprehend.

In PSS, this innate untranslateability is used as an aggravator, to emphasize the difference between the birdman and the human, to distance the one from the other. When, at the end of the story, the nature of Yagharek’s crime is revealed, the effect is bathetic. While, we don’t really understand what choice-theft means to the Garuda, the crime described certainly enters into Isaac’s (and our) lexicon of violence. The effect seems to be as if to say: ‘You know that great intercultural mystery, we mentioned? It’s actually not all that mysterious.’ The difference between the two cultures is partially effaced.

The ‘untranslateable idea’ trope is at the heart of Embassytown. The idea, in this case is the lie: the sense without referent, with no state of the world to make it true. A concept familiar to humans, but one the alien Hosts cannot parse

With an entire novel as the stage, Embassytown’s treatment of this trope is far more sophisticated. The distance between the human and hosts psyches is respected and maintained, even while the hosts grope for ways around it, such as cutting themselves off midway telling a truth to say a falsehood. When eventually the first Hosts cross the divide, and attain the ability to use metaphor, the effect is a million miles from bathos. It is exhilarating.

For me, the key difference is that in Embassytown it is the human idea which is taken to be imparsable, alien and bizarre. It’s the aliens who have the problem that we need to understand if we’re to get the point of the book. This demands an act of empathy with the hosts from the reader, even to grasp that problem. We are brought together with the alien, even while our differences are underscored. There’s a kind of asymptote towards the impossible. Of course, we could never really communicate with something truly alien. But through this sleight of tongue, that goal feels a little closer.


.s are tough to draw, and massive hostages to fortune. But at the risk of even more tenous theory-wank, there does seem to be an overarching theme to the above.

Mieville, somewhat counter-intuitively for someone with his record on monsters, is de-horrifying the Alien. He’s making it easier to access, less frightening-as-default, but without removing any of it’s alien-ness. The alien’s world is no longer a wholly forbidden zone, its weird appearance no longer a vessel of terror.

Embassytown is post-monster Mieville. The Hosts aren’t creatures you fight, they’re creatures you talk to.  Nevertheless, that conversation is as dangerous, heroic and vital as battling any mind-slurping hypno-insect. And for the first time in his work, it’s a conversation that feels somewhere close to possible.


2 thoughts on “The Alien Nextdoor. Mieville, Monsters and Metaphors

  1. I love this. Everything you say also contributes to the dialogue Miéville is having with classic sci fi tropes concerning colonization, imperialism and expansion. He’s not merely referencing and reinforcing the divide between “us” and “them,” (classic SF), he’s crossing it (revisionist SF) and then moving further on, to talk about the nature of both the division and connection. And moving forward.

    It’s bloody brilliant.

    1. It is amazing, isn’t it? I think it might be my favourite Mieville work so far. It’s just so moving. The emotional payload carried by the central idea is just staggering. I found myself deeply, deeply rooting for them to express that first real lie.

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