The Ontology of China Mieville

China Mieville is a rare writer who manages to find originality in the sometimes-tired genre of sci-fi. The City and the City (2009) and Embassytown (2011) are two of the most original novels I have read for a while. They are also very disorienting, and I struggled to work out what was going on for the first ten or twenty pages.

Take, for example, the opening pages of The City and the City, where we are thrown into the world of Besz, which, we soon realise, is also Ul Quoma – a city with a schism that runs along ethnic lines, and whose boundaries are psychological rather than geographical. The residents of Besz and Ul Quoma live in the same geographical area, but are not allowed to interact or even to see each other. It is such that our protagonist, a noir-inspired detective, frequently has to ‘unsee’ those around him, those he realises are actually in ‘the other city’.

How ridiculous, you might think, to suggest that such a thing is even possible, and yet, Mieville is not just suggesting that it is, but that ‘unseeing’ is something that we do on a daily basis. Is it not what we do when we see homeless people? Or asylum seekers arriving in Greece from Syria? Are we not guilty of throwing up such psychological boundaries every day?

Unseeing is not about the absence of stimuli to the eyes: we cannot prevent phenomena from assailing our senses: the word ‘phenomenon’ means ‘thing appearing to view’. We can, however, look without seeing. For example, we can search for something that then somehow appears as having been in front of us all along. Phenomena appear to us by their very nature, but until they appear as ‘that thing we’re looking for’, they aren’t really anything at all. In other words, until the mind takes hold of things through language and being becomes determinate, there isn’t anything there.

It is in this way that the residents of Besz and Ul Quoma manage to live, as Mieville puts it, ‘grosstopically’ – in the same geographic location – and yet not ‘see’ each other. Unseeing, then, is the negating of noumena rather than phenomena. ‘Noumena’ comes from the Greek ‘nous’, which translates (roughly speaking) as ‘intellect’. Noumena are objects of thought, things as they exist in our mind. A mermaid, for example, cannot swim in front of our eyes, but it does exist as an object of thought.

China Mieville, photographed September 4, 2010, Melbourne, Australia. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan/Melbourne Writers Festival

Embassytown takes places on Arieka, a planet lying on the edge of the known universe. On the planet, humans live in harmony with the local ‘exots’ (read ‘exotic species’), the Arieki. The Arieki language, simply referred to as ‘Language’ involves their two mouths making different sounds simultaneously. The humans eventually work out that the Arieki are incapable of expressing any abstract concepts at all, and are thus incapable of learning any human languages.

In order to communicate with them, the human colonists train pairs of humans from birth. The pairs that are successfully able to speak Language become known as ‘Ambassadors’, and are officially referred to by singular pronouns, i.e. Ez and Ra become Ezra, and so on.

Due to their inability to have abstract thoughts, the Arieki are unable to lie. The Ambassadors, however, can, and realise that the Arieki experience their lies as a form of psychedelic trip – the impossible things described to them exist as something akin to hallucinations. Given that the Arieki seem to get such a kick out of it, the Ambassadors hold what they call ‘Festivals of Lies’, in which they indulge the Arieki with a series of what amounts to minor fibs, much to the Arieki’s pleasure.

In order to expand their vocabulary, the Arieki sometimes ask humans to perform often strange ‘performances’, which are then used in order to describe things previously impossible. For example, the protagonist becomes ‘the girl who ate what she was given’, enabling the Arieki to use her as a simile: ‘[blank] was like the girl who ate what she was given’.

Language tests the boundaries of how we understand language and communication more generally: for the Arieki, there is no clear distinction between sign and signified: the Arieki could not get to ‘the girl who ate what she was given’ until they saw a girl who ate what she was given. The chief protagonist’s husband, Scile, a linguist, explains the conundrum with the following:

“Simile spells an argument out: it’s ongoing, explicit, truth-making. You don’t need… logos, they used to call it. Judgement. You don’t need to… to link incommensurables. Unlike if you claim: ‘This is that.’ When it patently is not. That’s what we do. That’s what we call ‘reason’, that exchange, metaphor. That lying.

All language is a matter of replacing one thing with another, but in each case, sign and signified are incommensurable. In other words, they are ontologically different. Scile’s remarks recall Nietzsche’s essay, On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense:

“What is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, in short, a sum of human relations which were poetically and rhetorically heightened, transferred, and adorned, and after long use seem solid, canonical, and binding to a nation. Truths are illusions about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions, worn-out metaphors without sensory impact, coins which have lost their image and now can be used only as metal, and no longer as coins.”

What Nietzsche points out is that all language is metaphorical, and that truth is therefore illusory in some sense. Scile suggests something similar: metaphor involves lying because we can never know ‘being’ except through language. Language is a convenience used by humans in order to describe beings, but being remains unknown to us. Words are lies in the sense that they describe that which cannot be described.

Both The City and the City and Embassytown explore questions of ontology. The difference between phenomena and noumena, the difference between sign and signifier. This is not to say that they are not also deeply political works, wonderful satires of modern political machinations. Are we not, like the Arieki, becoming addicted to the rapid succession of emotionally-charged half-truths that the news has become? Has it not turned us into zombies that cannot discriminate between truth and lie, or that can’t be bothered doing so?