Bits and pieces
I’m up to 23 tongue depressors. Still can’t open my mouth as wide as Karen (I’m betting she could fit at least 30 to 32 tongue depressors) but 23 is much better than 12, which is where I was stuck about one week ago. I’m thinking that this IMO (intermaxillary opening — doctor jargon that measures how wide you can open) is good enough for the dentist to put on that new crown. Hopefully, the new dental work won’t set me back another 10 tongue depressors.
Yesterday, I finished China Mieville’s Embassytown, which was a bit of a disappointment. With Kraken and The City & The City, I’d begun to feel as if Mieville could do no wrong. Perdido Street Station was a mixed success in my opinion, but then, it was one of his earlier works. I was really looking forward to Embassytown, which is Mieville’s stab at science fiction. Except it’s not. Not really. There’s an artificial-ness to the story, the sort of creeping falseness that happens when the idea or argument is central, and the characters and plot are secondary to it. In the case of Embassytown, I get the strong sense that he wants to engage us in an exploration of the fundamentals of semiotics. This sort of thing may be interesting, but it hardly makes for a great story. Let me put it this way . . . I have a linguistics friend from college who would absolutely lurve this book. Everyone else? Well . . .
Avice Benner Cho (and I’m sure the “ABC” of her name is intentional) is a colonist at a distant outpost, one of the fringe settlements of Homo diaspora. She grows up in Embassytown, a human (and other non-native sentient species) ghetto within the City, which is where the Hosts live, also known as the Ariekei. The Ariekei are mostly insect-like beings whose language is devoid of symbolic elements. When they say their word for “aircraft,” for example, their minds equate the word with the aircraft. It’s not so much that the sounds “aircraft” symbolize an actual aircraft; they might as well be that aircraft. The only way they can create similes is by having a concrete representation of the simile in their living experience. Thenceforward, they can refer to the memory of that simile and use it in conversation. In one of the book’s earliest scenes, Avice Benner Cho becomes one of their similes.
To a large degree, the success of such a story depends on whether you can accept that initial set-up: that a sentient being could exist for whom language lacks symbolic value. Red is not just a sound which we associate with a color, it is that color, and so on. Unfortunately, I was never able to make that leap.
There are, nevertheless, some cool aspects to this story. Without giving away too much, I’ll only say that Embassytown has about the most convincing “language as mind-altering substance” thread as any I’ve seen in a science fiction work of any media. Mieville sets up a language-based crisis which is convincing, and things go to hell in an equally convincing manner. Whether you’ll buy Avice Benner Cho’s solution to the crisis is another thing entirely.
You have to give the guy credit, though. He’s tackling some big questions here on the nature of language and how it shapes thought, and so I’m loath to criticize him for not hitting a home run on every point he tries to make. So many books these days are about nothing at all.
Which reminds me . . . did I forget to hype Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead? Pure pleasure.
But now I need something new to read.
Gave a talk to the pediatricians today on tonsillitis, tonsillectomy, nasal and ear foreign bodies. I was competing with a talk in the other classroom — that one was on “the motivational interview” (basically, how to convince your patients to do something — quit smoking, exercise, lose weight, manage their diabetes more closely). Most of the docs went to that one, but I got the pediatricians and family practitioners, most of them, maybe 15 or so.
It went over well but I think they mostly wanted to share foreign body stories. Doctors love foreign body stories.