Writing Dynamic Non-Humanoid Aliens, Part 3 of 4


Today, I look at China Miéville’s, EMBASSYTOWN. Beware of spoilers. This won’t be a review of the novel, but a study of the Ariekei, the aliens indigenous to the planet Arieka.

First, a little advice…If you have the opportunity, consume EMBASSYTOWN via audiobook. To buy EMBASSYTOWN via Audible, click here. To buy the physical novel, EMBASSYTOWN click here. Language is central to the story, but the Ariekei language is best experienced when heard rather than read, therefore my encouragement to read via Audible. The Ariekei (also known as the hosts) speak from two mouths at once. One mind, but two words emerge from the creature when it vocalizes. In the audio reading, the sound producers overlay two words spoken at once, like hearing two notes played at the same time. The effect is marvelous and strange.

For a synopsis: One human culture, the Bremen, has adapted and figured out a method of speaking with and listening to the indigenous population of Arieka, a planet on the edge of the known universe. Their motivation for doing so is to maintain a colony on Arieka. Like a typical colonial power, the Bremen dig for metals and also trade with the Ariekei, whose biotech is advanced and valuable across the known universe. The Ariekei are advanced in many respects, but their language does not allow them to lie or even speculate.

Conflict arises in EMBASSYTOWN when one Bremen ambassador introduces lying into the Ariekei language. He does this in the hopes of taking control of the host population, but chaos ensues. The main character, a woman named Avice Benner Cho, steps in to save those living on the planet, both human and Ariekei.

How does Miéville give the aliens, the Areikei, personality and tap into audience empathy?

  1. Similar to the film Arrival (see post 2 of 3), point of view is key. POV rests in one human character who is relatable. Avice narrates this tale in the first person. Not only is she human, she was raised on Arieka and is known by the indigenous population. She is returning to her home after many years of traveling through space. Avice is the “in between” character. She describes, interprets and translates for the audience.

    The sea creature also known as the Spanish Dancer

  2. Miéville finds colorful shorthand ways of describing the physical and personality attributes of particular Ariekei. Miéville, through his narrator, Avice gives the aliens nicknames, like  Spanish Dancer. It’s genius because this shorthand gives the audience color, shape and depth to individual Ariekei and is so much better than than referring to all of them as “insect-horse-coral-fan things” another set of descriptors Avice muses on in the novel. An artist’s rendering in the top image is not necessarily what I had imagined when I pictured the Spanish Dancer, but Miéville doesn’t need me to have that specific picture in my mind. The broad brush strokes are there in the nickname and not just any nickname…calling the creature a dancer implies grace and dignity. The name takes an alien that might be perceived as monstrous and draws our attention to its beauty and gentleness. Maybe this is why ocean scientists call the sea creature (pictured above) a Spanish Dancer. The moniker is descriptive and if I’m visiting an aquarium staring at this thing through glass, if I am thinking of dancers instead of monsters, my eyes are drawn to its beauty. Miéville is doing the same thing when he has Avice call one particular Ariekei, The Spanish Dancer. 
  3.  The Ariekei have known Avice since she was a child. Avice has a positive association with the Ariekei. She was raised on their planet and thrived. Humans and Ariekei have lived together for many years in peace. This underlying truth makes a difference in how the audience feels about the Ariekei.
  4.  The Ariekei are vulnerable to human abuse. The narrative of indigenous people groups used and abused by empires and greedy civilizations is not an uncommon story for the current sci-fi reading audience. Miéville dips into that narrative in this novel, portraying the aliens as complex, but also also as innocent, in large part because their language makes it impossible for them to lie. The audience empathizes with the vulnerable indigenous population. The narrative of “empire” taking over the “innocents” and using them for its own gain is familiar. That story taps into the audience’s empathy and our empathy lies with the Ariekei in this case.
  5. Avice relates to individual Ariekei, Miéville’s way of showing the audience that the Ariekei are not a monolith. Spanish Dancer is the most important Ariekei to the story, but there are others. As Avice relates to her and describes her and other Ariekei, the audience recognizes that though they are different from humans, the Ariekei are not all the same as one another. They are distinct in appearance and personality just as human beings are distinct from one another. (contrast this reality with the hive mind aliens, like the Formics in the Ender’s Game series, or the big computer brain of the Cylons “toasters” in Battle Star Galactica television series. I will tackle hive mind aliens in my final post on this topic.





The House of the Scorpion, An Audiobook Review

Roadtrip Listen

Audiobook Rating


by Nancy Farmer

read by Raúl Esparza

8 out of 10


Highly Recommend! This listen is perfect for a family road trip because the novel is well written and engaging enough to capture the interest of a variety of story-lovers, young and old. The audio voices are well-performed by actor, Raúl Esparza (Ferdinand, Law & Order: Special Victim’s unit) and the story lends itself easily to the listening ear.

5 Reasons for such a strong review:

1. Initially, there are few characters to follow and as new ones are introduced, the listener can maintain a grip on who everyone is…including, there are a number of characters with accents and very distinct voices (performed well by Esparza).

2. The point of view is third person, it stays close to Matt. It does not jump around from character to character.

3. The repetition of little stories told mostly by El Patrón, work like anchors for the listening brain. I write about this in my review of the novel, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION Repetition is a common story-telling technique, much like songwriters or poets will use a chorus or a repeated stanza to drive a point home.

4. The writing is top notch, which means, the dialogue is well written. The dialogue feels authentic, like real people talking.

5. Description of Opium takes place slowly and organically. The listener doesn’t have to absorb a huge amount of exposition, the describing of places, houses, rooms, plants, animals, people etc..takes place incrementally. Matt’s life starts out small and his view of Opium is narrow, but little by little, as he learns, the listener learns. Details are added that are important, but not all at once. It makes the audio format easy to follow.

For more on how to choose a good audiobook, see Part II  The Rise of the Audio Book

The Rise of the Audio Book, Part I

Do you listen to audio books? I do (and my family does) and word on the street is, there are a lot of book-listeners out there.

Here’s what Forbes’ Media and Entertainment writer, Adam Rowe reported last year:

“In 2017, digital content subscription service Scribd’s fastest-growing segment was audiobooks. Primary audiobook subscriber numbers for Scribd grew by more than 20% in 2016. The rise isn’t unique to Scribd: Audiobooks are also up about 20% year over year across the publishing industry for the first eight months of 2017, according to the Association of American Publishers’ data reports from 1,200 publishers. In the same time period, print books rose just 1.5%, and e-books dropped by 5.4 %.”

Who is listening to audio books?

Commuters, the home parent who is cooking a meal each night, families on a road trip, dog walkers, endurance athletes who have to train for hours at a time, the gym rat with a literary bent…many are listening. There is evidence to suggest that those who listen to audio books are also avid readers and audio books simply allow these readers to consume more books than their average number, but I suspect, some folks who don’t like to sit still in order to read are consuming books anew, like they haven’t since college or high school.

Where do you fall on the spectrum?

I confess, I don’t often listen to audio books while walking my dog, but use it as a time to be quiet and enjoy nature, but on a long road trip, whether alone or with family, I’m huge fan of audio entertainment, books and podcasts. I live in the Western US, where getting places often requires a long car voyage. A visit to my parents and brother, 12 hours. A visit to my son at the university he attends, 8 to 10 hours depending on traffic. If my daughter decides to go to grad school, we will drive 15 hours to help her move. These are all one-way trips I’ve delineated, so double the car time and I end up with a whopping number of hours spent in a car.

That’s a lot of productive time…or entertainment time…or time to check one or two books off your to read list. You will find that the hours it takes to get through a book vary, but on average, 12 hours will get you to the final chapter. The roundtrip to my daughter and back, for example, is at least 30 hours of drive time, that is about a 2-novel voyage…or we could take on something very long, like Herbert’s DUNE.

That’s the math for the road tripper, but what about the gym rat?

For the gym rat: 5 hours per week, for 4 weeks…that is about one extra book per month.

For the commuter in urban America, the average car time or train time to work is 30 minutes. That is 1 hour per day, 20 hours per month, about 1 to 2 extra books consumed per month.

If you are a business person, imagine reading one dynamic leadership book per month for a year and how that might impact your career. This becomes a fairly compelling model when one thinks about taking in new information that could improve your life coupled with entertainment.

I’m usually buying a science fiction audio book when I listen, but every now and then, a great non fiction book like THE POWER OF HABIT, gets onto the listening list. It turns out, habits do impact a writer like me, sort of a no-brainer, but the book lays out what happens in the body and brain when we establish positive (or negative) habits of life and work. I’m glad I listened to that book. I listened with a group that was on a road trip. My husband, a couple of college-aged kids and I were driving down to pick up my son from college. We ended up engaging in great discussions around the topic of habit that lasted the entire weekend…all while picking up a kid from college and helping him move back home for the summer…a time when college kids can fall into habits, good or bad. Am I a scheming parent to have thought of this? No…We really just stumbled upon the book.

So…it’s important, if you are choosing a book for the driving/riding community, to think about the character of the group that will be listening. Do aim for a book pleasing to all, but also, provocative. Spur those discussions that will happen at In n Out Burger or Grandzella’s or wherever you end up pausing for a meal.

This is part I of a two-part post.

See my post, The Rise of the Audio Book. Part II where I explain the appeal of audiobooks and perhaps entice the skeptic to try them out.