Tom: Do you have a favourite among your books?
China: It will sound like a hedge, because generally I think my answer oscillates between three—can you oscillate between three things?—anyway, it does that. As a quick and dirty answer, the book that I think is probably the most seamless, the one that I think works best in its own terms, is The City and the City. The one that I think is in some ways the most ambitious, and that I've worked at the hardest over the longest time, is probably Embassytown. But the one that feels most kind of like an unmediated expression of my core, and that means the most to me for all its flaws, is Iron Council.
I don't know why I enjoy hearing an author's opinion of his own work so much, but hearing that this book was hard to write and then reading it...it is pretty hard to read too! Just wrapping my mind around what was going on and the aliens involved took effort. I can't actually imagine writing this, let alone coming up with the concept.
It contains aliens who do not think like humans, and thus find it almost impossible to communicate with humans. In fact, it isn't clear that anyone is actually communicating what they think they are communicating, but they have some sort of a system which appears to work ok. The only other place I've seen this is C.J.Cherryh's Chanur series where there are a couple species of aliens - methane breathers - who have a lot of trouble communicating with the oxygen breathers, but they've managed just barely enough to put together some safety regulations and avoid huge incidents, but not quite enough that anyone is really comfortable. Coming up with alien modes of communication, and then trying to get the concept across to the reader when the reader should clearly be unable to communicate with one of these races...it is difficult.
Then there is Avice, the main character, who is also a simile in the 'language' spoken by the Ariekei. They speak only truth, and so when they want to say "this is like the girl in the room who ate what was given to her", they needed a girl to sit in a room and eat what was given to her, so they paid her to perform this little scenario so that they could then refer to it. Utterly bizarre. Anyway all of this means that they cannot lie, but they are fascinated by lies and lying because of the odd mental dissonance it produces for them. Avice is a good character. She grew up in Embassytown, and then left on a spaceship, and is pretty much the only person ever to come back. She isn't back because she wants to be, she's back because her husband is a linguist and is fascinated by the Ariekei. So she doesn't quite fit in with any particular group in Embassytown, and seeing through her eyes lets us see all the different aspects of the Embassytown economy.
The story is fascinating and weird. It was really interesting, but I didn't really engage with the main character. Possibly because she didn't really want to be there? She was trying to feel aloof for most of the story, which made things difficult for me. Towards the end she really starts to care about Embassytown and its future, and at that point I really started to care about things...at which point the book was basically over. Overall a very interesting book, but I'm not sure I would bother to read it again.