Addiction to the God Drug: an Irreal Notion in China Miéville’s Embassytown

[posted by Alice]

China Miéville is a science fiction writer who frequently describes his own work as “weird fiction.” His 2011 novel Embassytown is a complex and unusual psychological science fiction novel that focuses on linguistics, and though it is not as irreal as his 2009 effort The City and the City, there is an irreal notion at Embassytown’s core. I’ll try not to include too many spoilers in this post, though you can find a full synopsis of the novel here, and there’s a thoughtful and well-written review of the whole book here. But I intend to limit myself to describing the particularly irreal notion that is at the heart of the novel, the idea that extraterrestrial beings become addicted to a type of speech, which is referred to at times as the God drug. To describe it, I will use Shimon Sandbank’s idea that some fictional notions, such as those in Franz Kafka’s work, present us with “so many pointers to an unknown meaning.” But first, though Embassytown is mostly (good) science fiction and not irreal fiction, I need to describe briefly the events that take place in the novel.

In the far future time that is the novel’s setting, humans have travelled out into the galaxy in a diaspora that has taken them to the edge of known space. The novel’s narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is a woman who was born and raised in Embassytown, a human colony on a farflung world called Arieka that is inhabited by an intelligent and unique species. Avice earlier left Arieka to became an Immerser (which means she has the skill to pilot starships as they pass through the Immer, which seems to refer to travel though hyperspace), and after a number of years of living as an Immerser she returned to Arieka with her linguist husband in time to experience the events depicted in the novel.

Embassytown is a place designed to give humans an appropriate environment (such as air to breathe) on an otherwise inhospitable planet, and it is the home of Ambassadors who can speak with the Ariekei in their own language. As a result of the Ambassadors’ efforts, humans can exchange technology and goods with the Ariekei, who are mostly treated respectfully by the colonists and referred to as the Hosts. The Hosts are never completely described, but they are large creatures with chitonous shells who have two wings, a number of legs, and multiple eyes. Their speech is referred to as Language, and Avice tells us that in her wide travels throughout the galaxy Language seems to be unique. It is especially difficult to speak because it requires the expression of two separate sounds or words from separate mouths at the same time. Because the Ariekei can only comprehend these sounds if they are emitted by a conscious being and not if they come from a recording, human Ambassadors are actually a pair of cloned humans who have a special empathic link that allows them to learn to speak two separate but necessary parts of Language simultaneously. In this way they can be understood (though imperfectly) by the Hosts.

Avice has a special relationship to Language in that she was made a simile by the Ariekei when she was a child. The Ariekei are fascinated by the human ability to speak something different from the realities they think and see, and unlike humans they find it nearly impossible to lie. After they come into contact with humans they periodically hold Festivals of Lies at which they make feeble attempts at lying and seem to find the experience oddly stimulating. The Ariekei also create similes to enable them to speak in ways that are not strictly true, and they sometimes recruit humans to undergo various experiences which are then used in a type of figurative speech. Among segments of the community of humans in Embassytown there is a cult of celebrity honoring those who have been made similes — these include “the boy who swims with the fishes” and “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what she was given.” The latter is the simile Avice has helped to make possible.

When the Bremen authorities send a new Ambassador, Ez/Ra, who is unusual in that the two humans involved are not clones of each other, the Hosts are so overwhelmingly affected by Ez/Ra’s speech that they become addicted to it. This addiction leads to violence and conflicts that have never before been experienced on Arieka, but it’s not necessary to talk any more about the novel’s plot (which would frankly involve a number of spoilers) in order to say that it is the nature of addiction to Ez/Ra and their way of speaking Language that gives us the irreal element in this novel. This addictive speech is sometimes referred to in the novel as “the God drug.”

When the Hosts hear Ez/Ra speak, they are thrilled and overwhelmed, and after a short time they so desperately need to hear more that they are unable to carry on the normal business of their lives. And so of course the first notion that the idea of Ez/Ra and addictive speech points to is an obvious meaning related to the consequences of addiction in the lives of the addicts. Because Embassytown is a colony this addiction can be seen as part of a manipulative ploy on the part of the colonial administrators to get what they want on Arieka. Despite the frequency of German references and words (for example, Bremen is the name of the administrative center to which the Ambassadors and their staffs must answer; the word immer, which refers to space travel that collapses distances the way wormholes do, is the German word for always), the story implies the kinds of colonial relations that sprung up during the British Empire. (Miéville is British after all, and the colonists in Embassytown do speak Anglo-Ubiq.) The addiction to Ez/Ra and subsequent warfare therefore remind me of the Opium Wars, during which Britain and China fought over the fact that the British were illegally importing and selling opium and wanted to force China to open its markets to foreign goods. Ez/Ra’s speech and the notion of the God drug can be seen as an unethical way for colonizers to manipulate the indigenous inhabitants of an important colony, but many other concepts are implied. I can think of at least five other meanings that Ez/Ra’s speech or the God drug points toward, without actually being fully explained by any of them:

  1. The two voices needed to speak Language and the almost supernatural power of Ez/Ra’s speech bring to mind Julian Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In this book Jaynes put forth the notion that ancient peoples, the Greeks among others, experienced a divided consciousness in which one of the “voices” that seemed to speak to them inside their own minds was interpreted as the voice of the gods. (Note that the name Ezra is Biblical in origin, and the Ra half of the name makes reference to the ancient Egyptian god of the sun.)
  2. The two voices needed to speak Language and the addictive nature of Ez/Ra’s speech also remind us that the voice of the writer is speaking inside the reader’s head. Depending on the reader’s opinion of the writer, this can sometimes become nearly addictive. Perhaps Miéville himself has experienced irrational loyalty and a clamoring for more output from his fans (remember that the word fan is a shortened version of fanatic).
  3. The language of the novel itself is compelling and propels us forward because we want to find out what will happen. Such is the nature of storytelling, which is a kind of lie. When the Ariekei learn to lie and use figurative speech, they also become capable of telling stories. Which reminds us in turn that Embassytown itself is a story.
  4. The hints of German language in the novel make us think about the effect that Adolf Hitler’s speech had on the German people — a kind of hypnotic and extremely enthralling influence that is part of the reason why people followed his lead into the unspeakable horrors of World War II.
  5. Language is inevitably spoken by all Ariekei before the events described in the novel, but after Ez/Ra comes some Ariekei mutilate themselves so they cannot hear and cannot be addicted to Ez/Ra’s speech. Yet these mutilated Ariekei are able to communicate with each other, which leads to the realization that Language is not the only language.

The notion of two humans known as Ez/Ra speaking an extraterrestrial language in such a way that addiction and chaos result is truly a weird notion, and it gives Embassytown glimmers of irreality. However, in my opinion, the Ariekei themselves are not actually irreal. They are speakers of a language that can be spoken by and understood by humans. Much more alien are the aliens created by Stanislaw Lem in Fiasco or the Strugatsky brothers in Roadside Picnic, who are so different from and/or advanced beyond humans that they can scarcely be comprehended.

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2 thoughts on “Addiction to the God Drug: an Irreal Notion in China Miéville’s Embassytown

  1. Chip Howell says:

    Brilliant analysis: Mieville is one of my favorite authors and in terms of irreal content in his work, Embassytown features quite a number of deliciously irreal gems. In addition, I happen to absolutely adore his novel “The City and the City” which–again–can’t be considered truly irreal, but like Embassytown, there’s a wonderful/wacky irreal conceit upon which the entire book hinges. Oh, and thank you for the work you’re doing; it’s much appreciated and I love the fact that I’m playing catch-up since I’ve just recently discovered the Irreal Cafe…ah! Such a breath of fresh air!

    • irrealcafe says:

      Thanks for your kind comments about the Irreal Cafe and thanks for following our blog! I also love “The City and the City,” and I actually think it’s more irreal than “Embassytown.” I have not yet read “The Census-Taker,” but it’s on my list.

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