My first memory of reading EMBASSYTOWN is sitting at the kitchen table of my studio apartment in L.A. and having a full-blown panic attack.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from its pages to run to my unbearable job, collecting health care debts from small businesses in the middle of a recession. I sat at that table slurping caffeine and cursing my then-poorly-controlled ADHD, checked the clock with a growing pit in my stomach, and read that book with such desperate wonder I thought I would vanish from the room and wake up in its pages.
I never made it to work that day — I spent the week riddled with anxiety, making up increasingly baroque excuses for why i couldn’t lift my hands and feet and walk the 8 blocks from home to work.
The book had something to say about that experience too, as I followed the story of an alien race addicted to certain kinds of language so deeply that it destroys their agency and their whole culture. I was equally thrilled and sickened by that parallelism. But in author China Mieville’s story, life goes on past that destruction, just as it did in mine.
(The book isn’t really meant to just be about personal self-discovery. Mieville’s a committed Marxist who spends significant time turning a colonialist narrative inside out, tracking the pecking order of classes and how they rise and fall in crisis, mocking the idea that angry masses have no voice or ability to understand their situation, and situating a fictional memoir in the sociopolitical context that makes it that specific coming of age possible. I don’t want to pretend this book is nothing but what I make of it. But it also is a story about the process of memoir and the limits of telling your own story, and it also is what you make of it, and this is the story of my very own Embassytown and the complicated shape it has impressed upon my life.)
I was in my mid-20s. For the not the first and not the last time, my life had fallen apart and I had to start over. I’d done that in college when my undiagnosed ADHD wrecked my sophomore year, I’d do it again when I broke up with a 5-year partner and suddenly realized I couldn’t pretend to be a boy anymore. It might even be happening now again, as I write this.
Whenever that happens, I have found myself returning again and again to this one little nightlight of a book, this book that has become part of how I live through change in the world.
To explain why, maybe i need to tell you about Avice.
Avice Benner Cho (get it? ABC?) is the viewpoint character of the book, sometimes a heroine and sometimes a passive observer of the events unfolding in her world and universe. Avice’s gender is unclear at first (she dates across multiple genders and relationship styles and the book intentionally keeps gendered cues to a minimum), but she finally turns out to be a woman, which you mostly know because of a role she takes on as a youth.
You see, the aliens of this book, the Hosts, can’t say anything that isn’t literally true in the world right now — they can’t talk about abstractions. When they want to make a comparison or stretch language even a little, they have to hire somebody to perform a weird action they can point to later in arguments as a simile. In exchange for some social clout to get off this rock for a while, Avice becomes “The Girl Who Was Hurt In Darkness and Ate What Was Given To Her.” All of which she has to enact (have enacted upon her) literally, in order to make it speakable. Nobody ever called the gig of becoming memorable pleasant.
Hosts use Avice’s phrase to talk about being forced to make due with a lousy situation, but as the story goes on, we meet some dissident aliens who flip the script on her story, who say they want to make new choices out of an impossible situation, to go through hardship and find something not given to them on the other side.
Over and over the book is obsessed with the line between simile and metaphor, between being like something and just saying you are it, between an almost measurable fact of the world (“I am like this girl, i am trapped like this girl is trapped”) and a statement that changes your world by the bare assertion: (“I am that girl and I want out of this darkness, i want to choose my life, not eat the gruel life feeds me”). The latter is in some very rigid senses a lie, but pretending life doesn’t allow for that transmutation is the bigger, invisible lie, one the Hosts are trapped in by their impossible Language.
That big lie has consequences, as a cosmic accident produces a speaker that enraptures the Hosts, makes all their culture and thought meaningless. They just want to hear them talk about colors and read shopping lists, and they lie around forgetting to eat or work or remember what day it is. The humans find themselves with no trading partners, only drugged thralls, and even the buildings and machinery get sick with addiction. The whole human class system, an aristocratic society built on access to the biotechnologically advanced Hosts, collapses.
As for Avice, she becomes irrelevant to the story for a while, vanishes from the halls of power she had a tiny vantage on before, has forgettable sex and drinks too much and doesn’t know what the hell is going on, as people she idolized or loved kill themselves in despair or become unrecognizably terrible, and others you wouldn’t expect try to pick up the slack and build anew:
“There were assignations and the collapses of relationships. There were many marriages. I had my own hurried liaisons. Really those first days are hard to talk about. The heroes who ensured that Embassytown wasn’t swept away by insistent addicted Hosts were the clerks, who set up structures while the rest of us failed not to fall apart. A little later I became something again: just then I was not.” [bold added by me]
That single paragraph has meant so much to me over the years, for telling me that some changes break you and they are not the end of you, just the old you, the old life. That you are not the only one carrying the weight of life, that you will stumble, fall, disappear, then perhaps appear again in a changed world.
But on the other side, and we’ll talk about this more together, Avice comes back. She becomes something again.
I remind myself of this over and over again.
I’m departing for a minute first:
I was trapped in my own invisible lie then too. I don’t know how to talk about this, there aren’t words for this, they break apart when I try. I’ll try.
I don’t believe in essences or inherentnesses around gender or anything else, I don’t envision a pink light instead of a blue light descending on me before having a soul breathed into an empty late-term fetus, i had no fucking clue who I was at age 6 but that I hated guacamole (you were wrong, kiddo) and liked books. I can’t say that I Always Knew I Was Trans, and it took me a long time to realize that was Allowed, was real, that I could ever be possible.
But in some crucial way that makes all the difference, I was never really a person until a few years ago, when I stopped trying to be a boy after decades of mysteriously failing at it. I had spent so much energy on trying to find the One Thing that would make me feel like a part of my own life. I had spent so long looking for meaning in all-consuming relationships and subcultures and politics and spirituality and sex with women whose bodies I often silently envied and with men who assumed common ground I didn’t know how to find, and hobbies and chasing social meaning in work and academics and maybe even just the right book. But whatever I did, I only ever touched life through an invisible pane of glass.
And one year not too many before this one, wrenching off a protective scab the size of my whole life, and seeing a ragged hole of longing underneath, and in all the agony of self-imagining some unbearable future as a doomed, hideous, loveless, sexless, embarrassing outcast, and even then still wanting this …
I found a way out of that lie, out of whatever mystery of my own internal makeup made it a lie, whispered “I want to be a girl” into my ear like some relentless hit song. I spoke myself into existence, name by name, pronoun by pronoun. Learned to talk about wanting things, fraught things that could get you laughed at or glared at or attacked, but mostly found in the community of trans women a world of in-jokes, sob-stories, shared complaints and longings, minor and major agonies transmuted into humor, professions of loyalty and adoration. They spoke my language better than I did, so I learned theirs, and it turned out to be one I’ve been trying to speak my whole life. It’s mine.
I let my body start to change, told friends and coworkers and family new stories about myself, altered the language of my clothing and accessories, encountered the same world as a different one: riskier, full of harassers and bigots, but more mine than ever for all that.
I spoke myself into this new life, and this life took me in.
The Hosts speak with two harmonious tongues. One utterance looks two threads of conversation in harmony, two tongues dancing as one. They can’t even hear people who don’t speak AND THINK in unison.
Humans cope by breeding clones, teaching them to paper over their differences, even match blemishes and papercuts, talk in harmony, spend every moment together, talk about themselves as a single being. And speak as one just well enough to give a Host a whiff of selfhood.
Which is yet another pervasive lie, because no matter how the specially bred twin Ambassadors try to be identical, they are forever two distinct people papering over their differences. Humans don’t speak in one voice. We never could. Nor could the Hosts, thought they don’t see it about themselves.
So much of the work of the rest of the book is to try to break the hold of this Language on at least a few Hosts who can show their friends what they saw, to give them the slippage of lie and metaphor between signifier and signified. To let them lie their way out of the bigger lie.
Asking to be called she felt like the biggest possible lie. I felt so fake. Nobody would ever see me as anything that could see the light of day, be allowed to exist.
So many of us talk about that vile inner voice that comes from our society and our upbringings, the one that constantly looks for little bits of our own presentation to pick apart and invalidate our whole gender. It calls us fake and hideous and pathetic, every possible thing the hateful and bigoted trolls on public social media would ever accuse us of. It’s work every single day to ignore that voice, to live beyond it. There is no perfectly coherent person here, just a constant decision to pay attention to what matters instead, to believe I deserve to exist because I am alive.
To do what sometimes feels like a lie in the moment and trust whatever unreachable longing runs deeper than that voice.
Again and again, that book has its characters struggle to break free of the world as it is, to find a way out of similes into metaphor, into what the Greeks called poiesis, the word that sounds like poetry but feels like God: the act of bringing into being something that wasn’t there before. The story breaks them, makes them unrecognizable to their past selves, and yet they must.
They struggle with “I am like the girl” and try to twist it into “I am the girl”, back and forth, and back and forth:
I am like the girl, and I am the girl.
I am like the girl.
I am the girl.
Lately I’m something I always needed. As much as anything ever does, I make sense. Even colors are brighter now, smells more pungent.
But it didn’t Fix Everything, it just fixed enough to let me go on. To have a voice at last to ask of life what I need of it. And it begins again over and over and over.
I begin again, I end, I begin again.
I found out some bad news lately, something far afield from the trans issues that are my usual complaints about life. My life is going to be a lot more complicated and uncertain this year, and many things are now on the back burner so I can face it head-on.
I cried, then I hid for days and cried some more — and then I read Embassytown, and came back to the world. It was one thing I knew how to trust.
Years since its publication, that one book is more important to me than ever, as someone who has spoken herself into language when once all she could find was scraps of likeness between the world and her desires, someone who faces the prospect of once more “being hurt in darkness and eating what is given her,” someone who constantly faces the prospect of trying to make choices in the rigidity of the limits of her imagination.
I need to remember the way you fall apart when everything changes, and that new things come, and how that new thing becomes the next thing that is not fallen apart.
I have never spoken before. I’m still reading my life into being, I never spoke. I speak now.
Marley Alexander has had countless lives from debt collector to publishing the occult, but is best described as a writer, software engineer, and queer trans woman. Her passions include feminist SFF, trans headcanons, and outrageously 90s fashion.
(Embassytown by China Mieville)
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