Among Aliens in a Strange Land

A brilliant science fiction novel and a non-fiction history book both look at living among others with very different languages and culture.

Issue #39, Sunday 19 February 2023

Bookish News

New and Upcoming Releases

Some exciting new releases from New Zealand and Australian authors.

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

(Available 3 March 2023)

A gripping psychological thriller from Eleanor Catton, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries, Birnam Wood is Shakespearean in its wit, drama, and immersion in character. A brilliantly constructed consideration of intentions, actions, and consequences, it is an unflinching examination of the human impulse to ensure our own survival.

Birnam Wood is on the move …

I really enjoyed Catton’s The Luminaries. This is her first novel since then, and it sounds very interesting. A “must buy”, I think.

Buy it at Readings

A Country of Eternal Light by Paul Dalgarno

Margaret Bryce, deceased mother of twins, has been having a hard time since dying in 2014. These days she spends time with her daughters – Eva in Madrid, and Rachel and her family in Melbourne – and her estranged husband, Henry, in Aberdeen. Mostly she enjoys the experience of revisiting the past, but she's tiring of the seemingly random events to which she repeatedly bears witness. There must be something more to life, she thinks. And death.

A poignant, utterly original and bitingly funny novel about complicated grief and how we remain wanted by our loved ones, dead or alive.

Buy it at Readings

An Ungrateful Instrument by Michael Meehan

At its heart An Ungrateful Instrument is a novel that portrays a son’s struggle to be more than a mere instrument of the father’s ambition. Antoine Forqueray and later his son Jean-Baptiste, were each brought up as child prodigies to the court of Louis XIV. Together, they were said to be the only musicians in France who could play the father’s brilliant, eccentric music for the viola da gamba. In an imaginative masterstroke the story is told by Jean-Baptiste’s highly attuned deaf-mute sister, Charlotte-Elisabeth. Threaded throughout, deep in a forest an old man creates the gift of a special viol for the boy, Jean Baptiste.

This is a novel that can almost be heard like music, as it soars in language, theme, and a wisdom that both embodies and transcends its period setting.

Buy it at Readings

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Embassytown by China Miéville

My thanks to Murray MacLachlan for recommending this book to me.

This is certainly one of the best pieces of pure science fiction I’ve read in the last several years, topped only by the same author’s The City & The City. It has the most unusual and intriguing treatment of an alien species I’ve yet come across. A fascinating concept, brilliantly carried out.

There’s so much to think about in here: about the nature of language; truth and lies; communication and misapprehension; human arrogance, colonialism and exploitation; corporate greed; and drug addiction and dependence.

The story is all told from the first-person viewpoint of Avice Benner Cho, a young woman born in Embassytown, which is a small outpost of humans set on a planet called Ariekene. Because the humans are living there by the gracious condescension of the Ariekei, the aliens are treated with great respect, and initially we know them only as “the Hosts”. Embassytown is an extended embassy compound in the midst of an alien city. It is occupied by ambassadors, their staff and the families of the staff. As the novel opens, the humans have been on the planet for several hundred years. The world-building here is masterly, and the description of the aliens and their strange biologically-based technology (all of their “machines” and even their buildings and factories are living creatures) is fascinating, but it’s their language which is the key to this book.

After a short prologue, we go back to Avice’s childhood. This subtly introduces us to many facts about Embassytown and the aliens. We learn that humans can’t breathe the Ariekene atmosphere: they are kept alive by ‘aleoli’, plants which emit oxygen, spread throughout the human enclave. Go much outside that area, as the children dare each other to do, and you begin to strangle on the alien air. It’s when one of Avice’s friends goes too far, collapses and has to be rescued that Avice meets an adult called Bren, who is to play a significant role in her life. Here also she encounters a Host in person for the first time, and we learn that Bren can understand what it is saying, but that he can’t reply and be understood by the Host.

The key to the story is the very, very strange nature of the Ariekei language. They have two different organs involved in communicating, each of which is used to make sounds simultaneously, so that every word has two components. When the humans first arrived, they used their advanced A.I. to quickly learn the Ariekei language, so they could soon interpret what the Hosts were saying. But when the humans tried to reply, using artificial means to make the two sounds simultaneously, the Ariekei didn’t understand—indeed, they didn’t appear to recognise that anything at all had been said. Eventually, more by accident than design, the humans discover that for the Hosts to comprehend speech, there has to be a living, sentient mind behind the sounds being made. But since no single human can produce both sounds at the same moment, this at first seems impossible. The solution the humans come up with is both radical and startling: creating and raising human clones to act as Ambassadors, each of whom is so mentally tuned in to the other that the Ariekei perceive them as a single mind, and they can be trained to speak simultaneously to generate the two-part Ariekei language. Since only the Ambassadors are able to speak to the Hosts, there’s some doubt whether they perceive other humans as even being sentient.

There’s more: to the Hosts, to speak and to think are the same thing: they literally cannot speak anything other than the truth because what they speak is pure thought.

All of this, slowly introduced without any indigestible expository lumps, is just background to the critical event, which is what happens when a new Ambassador arrives. This Ambassador, for the first time, has not been born or raised in Embassytown, but has been sent by the corporation which controls the place. I won’t give more of the story away, but the arrival of this new Ambassador has profound and completely unexpected consequences, consequences which soon turn out to be utterly disastrous and threaten the survival of everyone in Embassytown.

How Avice, Bren and others deal with these terrible consequences is what fills up the rest of the book. Tension mounts, and the outcome is in doubt for a long while, keeping you turning the pages.

Avice herself has a really interesting and strong character arc: from her childhood, when she’s recruited by the Hosts to act as a “simile” (you’ll have to read the book to understand this!); through her time away from her home planet working as an “immerser”, someone who can navigate through the weird non-space which connects worlds; through her marriage to a man not born in Embassytown, but who is obsessed with the Ariekei language; from being a “floaker”, someone idling around not taking life very seriously, to becoming a rebel, a traitor and eventually a saviour.

I just though this was all great. Highly recommended. In fact I loved it so much, I turned around and read the whole thing again straight away, something I do very rarely. And appreciated it just as much the second time through.

Footnote: I see that, although Embassytown was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo in 2012, it didn’t win, coming second. Also on the list was Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey, the first book in The Expanse series, which came third. So the actual winner, Among Others by Jo Walton, a YA fantasy novel, must either be damn good, or else the voters got it completely wrong. Looks like Among Others also won the Nebula Award that year. I’ll have to get hold of a copy and read it.

Unknown Shore: The Lost History of England’s Arctic Colony by Robert Ruby

A very interesting piece of non-fiction history writing.

There are several levels to the story told here. Furthest back in time is the story of Martin Frobisher in Elizabethan England in the 1570s. He is persuaded that there is a way to reach China (then called Cathay) by sailing over the top of North America. England had been largely excluded from the exploitation of the New World through a series of papal directives which basically carved it up between Spain and Portugal. England was at the time a relatively minor power and at odds with the papacy because of Henry VIII’s split with Rome a generation before. Frobisher manages to convince enough investors and gain the blessing of Queen Elizabeth to equip a few ships and set off.

The second level to the story is that of the American Charles Francis Hall in 1859. A journalist and publisher, Hall had long been fascinated by stories of the Arctic. In particular, he became obsessed by trying to find out what had happened to the Franklin Expedition, a much later attempt by Britain to find the mythical Northwest Passage. Franklin and his crew never returned and mystery surrounded what happened to them. Fourteen years later, Charles Hall believed that there was a chance that some at least of Franklin’s men might have survived in the north and been taken in by the local natives of the area, then known as “Eskimos” though we now more properly call them Inuit. Hall managed to raise enough money and supplies to set off north, but he couldn’t afford his own ship and took passage on a whaler.

The third level of the story is that of the author himself, Robert Ruby, who visited the areas of interest and spent considerable time with the Inuit to research this book.

It’s a fascinating story, full of adventure and excitement, and very well written. Here for example is a passage by Ruby describing the environment:

Frobisher Bay and the hills were draped in the moonlight’s white silk. The landscape was frozen into white curves and sensual whorls. The bay, in the moonlight in spring, was a plausible setting for a perpetual afterlife cool and spare, economically lit, everything so finely tuned that you heard, or thought you heard, the flapping of a bird’s wings as it flew by, and heard the bird’s breath.

Martin Frobisher failed (of course) to find a passage to China in the far north, but in his explorations he landed at several places. He treated the Inuit as savages and failed to learn anything from them about survival in the north. He kidnapped an Inuit man, a woman and her child and took them back to England, where they soon died. Still, it’s quite remarkable to think of “Eskimos” being in England in the time of “Queen Bess”.

However, during their initial voyage, one of Frobisher’s men picked up a large black stone on one of the shores they visited. The collection of this stone triggered off a series of further expeditions and disasters because a dubious assay of its material back in England suggested that it was rich in gold. Spoiler, it wasn’t! But Frobisher’s interest, and that of Queen Elizabeth, turned quickly to the idea of making a fortune by mining this black rock in the Arctic. Further expeditions were mounted, and a short-lived mining colony established on a small island just off what we now know as Canada’s Baffin Island.

Charles Hall had some success in finding traces of Frobisher’s expeditions, but found little of use about Captain Franklin’s doomed mission. But he at least was prepared to listen to the Inuit, follow their guidance, and credit what they said, but he treated them as though they were children. I was struck by this passage, referring to the Inuit people who had taken him in and enabled him to survive when otherwise he would certainly have died:

He was Father Hall, as he described himself; they were his children and he wished them to obey him. They had fed, clothed, and housed him, yet he considered them the dependents.

You can only shake your head at such blindness and ignorance, failings certainly not shared by Robert Ruby on his much later expedition to the north.

Each of these interleaved stories is well told and full of interest and unexpected turns. Recommended.

Currently Reading

Waiting on the Shelf

So many books! But I haven’t really decided yet what I’ll tackle next. I need to read a few crime novels so that I can talk about them on a crime-fiction episode of our podcast in a few weeks. After Embassytown, I need a little break before I tackle anything more in the SF field, I think.

And that’s all for this issue. See you next time.

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