The opening chapters of China Miéville’s new novel throw you headfirst into a dizzying far-future landscape. You’re assaulted by invented words (time is measured in ”kilohours,” children are raised by ”shift-parents”) with very little explanation to ground you. It doesn’t help that Miéville gleefully shuffles the story back and forth across time and space. You feel like a visitor to a foreign country.

And you’re supposed to. The title of Embassytown refers to a settlement of humans residing in the middle of an alien civilization known as the Ariekei. The Ariekei look strange — horselike and insectile — but Miéville’s most interesting creation is their language: They can speak only in objective truth. In one of the book’s countless funny twists, they make a national sport out of trying, and failing, to tell lies.

So Embassytown is really, on many levels, a novel about language, about how different cultures communicate. Sound dry? Far from it. Miéville’s slow-burn narrative is by turns amusing and horrifying, mixing Philip K. Dick-esque satirical banality with a mesmerizing vision of a society on the brink of apocalypse. Yes, it’s a bit too long. But Miéville’s swing-for-the-fences gusto thrills. This is Big Idea Sci-Fi at its most propulsively readable. A?

Man of many styles

Miéville has said he wants to write a novel in every genre. Here’s how he’s doing.

Kraken (2010)
This novel’s tentacled beast brings to mind the slimy horror of H.P. Lovecraft.

The City & the City (2009)
Miéville takes the detective mystery and turns it into a metaphysical noir.

Un Lun Dun (2007)
The author’s young-adult novel is set in an alternate, mirror version of London.

Iron Council (2004)
The third book in the Bas-Lag trilogy draws heavily from American Western tropes.

Looking for Jake (2005)
Miéville’s only collection of short fiction includes one story that is illustrated.

The Scar (2003)
With pirates and sea creatures, this is a classic nautical

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