The familiar knock against science fiction is that it is all escapism, full of thrills like a
theme park ride, but empty of ideas. Yet open-minded readers may puzzle over such
gripes. In the world of highbrow literary fiction, the novel of ideas has virtually
disappeared. Meanwhile contemporary sci-fi writers, such as China Miéville, Liu Cixin,
and Neal Stephenson, stuff their books full of intriguing concepts and philosophical
angles. Have the traditional roles begun to reverse?

Miéville is an especially fascinating case.  You can tell that without reading a page of
his fiction—just by looking at his bio. He holds a degree in Social Anthropology from
Cambridge and both a Masters and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London
School of Economics. He was a candidate for Parliament in Britain, and has published
articles on a number of academic subjects.

That makes for an unusual pedigree for a genre fiction author.
But Miéville defends his embrace of genre fiction in articulate
terms: "The impulse to the fantastic is central to human
consciousness," he told interviewer Joan Gordon in 2003
"in that we can and constantly do imagine things that aren't
really there. More than that (and what distinguishes us from
tool-using animals), we can imagine things that can’t possibly
be there. We can imagine the impossible."

Eight years later, Miéville would take this very theme—the
conceptualization of the impossible—and turn it into the
central premise of his novel
Embassytown. Here he
envisions an alien race, the Ariekei, with a peculiar disability
—they are incapable of expressing anything in language that
does not exist in reality.  As a result they are unable to tell
lies, or even use the kind of metaphorical language that
humans take for granted.

This might seem a modest foundation on which build a novel,
yet by the time Miéville has worked all his variations on this
theme, he has not only crafted a fast-paced, exciting story filled
with unexpected twists and turns, but also explored a dizzying array of philosophical,
sociological and theological implications of his opening gambit. I’ve read few novels
in recent years—whether sci-fi or mainstream—which invite so many different
interpretive stances.

Embassytown is an outpost of human life at the far end of the known universe. But cities
are never just settings for Miéville, who must have been an urban planner in a previous
life.  Back with his novel
Perdido Street Station (2000), our author revealed an interest
—indeed, almost an obsession—with the friction and jostling, the conflict in agendas
and architectures of cities.  “Transition” was, in his description, “the fundamental
dynamic” of the world, and he reveled in the shifts from “industrial to the residential
to the opulent to the slum to the underground to the airborne to the modern to the
ancient to the colorful to the dram to the fecund to the barren” that constitute urban
The City & the City, the Miéville novel immediately preceding Embassytown,
was built on an even stranger conceit.  Here Miéville imagines a grotesque political
dynamic in which two distinct city-states occupy the same territory, each one trying
to pretend that the other does not exist.

The co-existence of two radically different communities returns in Embassytown, where
the terrestrial visitors live in small enclave surrounded by a large city of "host" aliens.  
Yet the Ariekei are so different from humans, and rely on such an impenetrable
language, that even the most basic communication is fraught with difficulty and risk
of misunderstanding.

The aliens' inability to lie is interpreted differently by various onlookers. Some idealize
this limitation, and see the Ariekei as akin to angels—their unblemished honesty a
sign of their blessed state. Others treat them as hopelessly naïve, little better than
children (albeit with much more powerful technology).  Still others pity their inability
to lie as proof of a chronic lack of imagination, an inability to understand the poetic
and metaphorical aspects of life. From the perspective of the latter group, the aliens
are intellectually crippled by their extreme scrupulousness.

Miéville’s story gets richer and more complex
as it proceeds, but even at an early stage, readers
are left with many questions to contemplate. Is absolute
honesty an advantage from an evolutionary standpoint?
When language stops telling the truth, is it liberated or
debased? Are our moral obligations altered when we are
dealing with creatures—whether aliens from outer space
or animals here on planet Earth—who are incapable of
comprehending right and wrong as we understand it?

It is to Miéville’s credit that he avoids spelling out these
issues, rather leaving them for readers to consider (or not)
as they see fit.  "I'm a science fiction and fantasy geek," he has explained. “I love this
stuff. And when I write my novels, I’m not writing them to make political points. I’m
writing them because I passionately love monsters and the weird and horror stories
and strange situations and surrealism, and what I want to do is communicate that.
But, because I come at this with a political perspective, the world that I'm creating
is embedded with many of the concerns that I have. But I never let them get in the way
of the monsters.”

True to his word, Miéville packs this book full of strange creatures and intense conflicts.  
His aliens, as it turns out, have other linguistic quirks that the terrestrial visitors in
Embassytown learn about only when it may be too late to head off their disastrous
consequences. Here again, the thematic material at play in the novel—in this
instance, relating to the dangers of making assumptions about cultures you hardly
understand—is not without implications for real world situations outside the pages
of a science fiction book. As a case study in applied anthropology,
might serve as a cautionary guide for assigned reading before embarking on

Perhaps my description above makes Miéville sound like a dry, polemical author.
But that would be a misleading takeaway. Readers who simply want a thrilling fast
paced story filled with surprises will not be disappointed by this novel, which ranks
among the most exhilarating science fiction novels I have read in recent years.
Miéville shows, time and again in the book, how an intelligent, thoughtful novel can
also provide plenty of action and suspense.  

“I do retain this hope that you can actually have it both ways,” our author once
explained.  “And if you can have it both ways at all, fantasy is a uniquely powerful
arena that would allow you to do that. So my aim would be precisely to write the
ripping yarn that is also sociologically serious and stylistically avant-garde. I mean,
that's the Holy Grail right there.”  If that’s the Grail, Miéville has got it in his grasp in
this expansive book. With
Embassytown, he has set a standard that even he may
find it hard to match in the future.  

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most
recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: February 5, 2018
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conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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"My aim would be precisely
to write the ripping yarn that
is also sociologically serious
and stylistically avant-garde.
I mean, that's the Holy Grail
right there."
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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