It's surprising how often science fiction and fantasy fail to challenge certain basic laws of reality. Aliens might be green and tentacled, space travel might mean that some characters age faster than others, but fundamental conceptual models still hold. Time exists. Life forms are capable of recognizing one another as such. Communication—even across languages—is still possible.
Refreshingly, self-described "weird fiction" author China Miéville systematically upsets every one of those conventions in his newest. Embassytown is a lot of things: a space adventure, a love story, a novel of exploration and colonization, and a primer on semantics. Most fundamentally, though, it's a novel about just how different life on other planets might be.
Take time, for example. Time in Miéville's world is measured in subjective hours: Human colonist Avice Benner Cho is 170 kilohours when she first leaves her home city of Embassytown, and 266 kilohours when she returns, a seasoned traveler poised to confront the greatest crisis her planet has ever faced.
Avice and the other humans who occupy Embassytown do so under the aegis of the planet's original inhabitants, called "Ariekei" or, more casually, "Hosts." The amiable Hosts provide an infrastructure for the planet's small human population−but while the two species peacefully coexist, communication proves more difficult. The Hosts speak a language unlike anything humans have encountered before.
As Avice explains it, "Their language is organized noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen."
While humans can understand Host language, Hosts prove incapable of understanding humans at all—unless two strongly bonded humans speak the Host language simultaneously. A strange breed of bureaucrat is developed in Embassytown called Ambassador: clones, raised to be as similar as possible in order to communicate with the Hosts, so tightly bound they're referred to as one unit. But when a non-identical Ambassador arrives, the logic of Embassytown is thrown into chaos. The dissonance inherent to the this new Ambassador has a powerful effect on the Hosts—it introduces an element of internal contradiction, of disconnect between word and concept, that acts on the creatures like a drug. Soon they're demanding speeches from the new Ambassador, strung out on language that thrillingly violates their most basic understanding of the world. In their distraction, they're allowing Embassytown to fall to pieces around them.
Caught in the middle is Avice, sometimes-lover to an Ambassador, who herself has a complex relationship with the Hosts. She's one of the few residents of Embassytown ever to have left—upon her return, she begins to investigate the language of the Hosts, what their language suggests about their world view, and about how that understanding can be used to save Embassytown.
Miéville's writing is about three reading levels smarter than most other novelists out there, and it takes some brain-work, piecing together the complexities of his world from information doled out through Avice's conversations, anecdotes, and flashbacks. It's worth it, though—all that effort is in the service of a profoundly engaging adventure story, harnessing a tough, resourceful protagonist, gossipy political intrigue, and epic battle scenes all to the power of an idea. Miéville forces the reader to a conceptual understanding of the Hosts' language. When that language experiences a dramatic shift, the reader is moved both intellectually and emotionally—it's a guided epiphany, with aliens.