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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
A Study of Non-Humanoid Characters
(Beware. A Few Spoilers Below. For a no-spoiler review of the film, ANNIHILATION click here, for a review of the novel, click here )
Since my second viewing of the film, ANNIHILATION, I have been musing on my own sci-fi writing, thinking about how difficult it is to portray non-humanoid aliens in a novel, even more so on the screen or stage. The audience may not ponder this, but sci-fi authors grapple with the problem every time they sit down to write.
If you do a google image search of Star Trek aliens, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Scroll down and down and down to view many colors of skin, odd make up and costumes, but most of the images you see will be faces that look a lot like human faces. In particular, those aliens that become super villains are almost always humanoid…Klingons, for example. Why do Star Trek writers/producers seem to prefer the humanoid alien?
One theory emerges…
When telling stories, facial expressions and body language hold meaning. When my editor asks me to show and not tell in my story, I rely on movement, posture, actions as well as dialogue to show character. So, if my alien is a purple blob that does not speak human language and is flying a space vessel into lower Earth orbit for the first time and feels anxious, how do I show the reader its anxiety? My editor will scold me if I write: The blob creature was anxious as it flew into low Earth orbit? This is an example of telling and not showing. Substandard writing. She wants better and I pay her for that advice…so how does a writer manage? Maybe I decide the blob alien doesn’t have any feelings. It’s machinelike. I don’t need to show anything beyond the flying. That option is backed up by the way human beings often view the other, whether alien or human. That’s how people objectify the other.
It/he or she feels nothing = I feel no connection = I don’t relate = I can despise it, him, her.
The not-feeling portrayal of the alien works sometimes. A number of successful sci-fi stories deliver to its audience the alien as monster, a creature or entity both sinister and destructive. The Thing as well as the first Alien films are good examples. Both follow the script of the haunted house drama. Humans are in grave danger, trying to defeat a monster that has found its way into the sacred living space. It will use up and in the process destroy all the good guys, unless the good guys destroy it/them first. The monster is objectively all evil.
What about non-human characters that might not be all evil? Those are of interest to me as they are to many other sci-fi writers.
Back to the purple blob.
So, how would I portray the anxiety in my blob character? Maybe I show the blob sweating while it nears planet Earth. Okay…that won’t work. How about a trembling blob? Would my audience interpret a trembling blob as an anxious one? For all they know, the trembling is a physical reality of a ship entering Earth orbit. You see the problem, which brings me to R2D2.
R2D2, not an alien but wildly different than a human, holds one answer. Recall a number of Star Wars franchise films. R2’s personality makes his mark in all of them and does so as a non human…How do the writers pull this off? How does R2 connect with the audience, which he does in a big way? (Note: in the Star Wars universe, all droids are programmed male or female. R2 was programmed “male” which is why I use the male pronoun when referring to him.) How do we know R2 has feelings when he can only bleep, squeal, whistle, spin its carapace from left to right, roll here and there and lunge back and forth on his three-wheeled legs? He doesn’t have facial expressions, arms and doesn’t even speak a human language, but the audience, especially children, feel a connection and an affection for this character. Why?
Dig deeper into the screenplay of the earliest film…Notice how humans, Luke and Leah, or another verbal and humanoid robot, C3P0 interpret for the audience what R2’s squeals, bleeps and actions mean. The audience sees and hears C3P0 responding to R2D2 in STAR WARS, A NEW HOPE and comes to understand the determined personality of this character.
Here’s an early R2D2 scene most of us are familiar with…the droids have just crash-landed on Tatooine and are journeying together across the planet’s desert-like dunes.
C3P0: What a desolate place this is…
R2: squeak, whistle
C3P0: Where do you think you’re going? Well I’m not going that way. It’s much too rocky.
R2: bleep, squeak
C3P0: This way is much easier. What makes you think there are settlements over there?
R2: bleep, bleep, whistle
C3P0: Don’t get technical with me. What mission? What are you talking about?
R2: whistle, bleep, bleep
C3P0: I’ve just about had enough of you. Go that way. You’ll be malfunctioning within a day, you nearsighted scrap pile!
R2: (turns to the left and begins heading in a different direction than C3P0)
C3P0: (calls after a departing R2) And don’t let me catch you following me and begging for help because you won’t get it.
Clever writers! This is one way to give that bucket of tin a whole lot of personality…put him alongside another verbal character who will always react emotionally (even though he is a droid, who of us would deny that C3P0 is highly emotional?) and interpret bleeps and whistles for the audience. After a while, the audience doesn’t even need the interpretation. We begin to hear the difference between a happy squeak or whistle and a sad bleep.
Back to the purple blob. If another humanoid is flying co-pilot and happens to speak a human language…now I can have the co-pilot respond to the trembling.
Purple Blob: (trembling as flames erupt around the nose of its space vessel)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: I’ve never seen you tremble before, Sir.
Purple Blob: (squishes 2 hoots and a few groans out an opening on the side of its gelatinous body.)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: Well. I can see why you would be nervous. The gravity on this planet is stronger than we thought, but our heat panels should protect us.
Purple Blob: (squishes out 1 hoot)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: I’m just glad it’s you flying a not me.
That’s it for now. Thursday, I’ll tackle the fantastic aliens in the film and short story, ARRIVAL.