Obviously, I made a plea for one of the people I was visiting for work to take me to the nearest used bookstore as soon as our meeting was done, where I found a copy of China Miéville's Embassytown.
I've read a lot of Miéville over the years, and I'm kind of annoyed at myself that somehow the one I missed when it was published is perhaps the best one he's ever written. Instead at that time I was reading Kraken. Which ... had elements in which it that were fine ... but was CERTAINLY NO EMBASSYTOWN.
Embassytown is that rare beast, science fiction of hard linguistics. It's set on a human trade outpost on an alien planet, which is populated by an intelligent species, the Ariekei. Communication with the Ariekei is uniquely difficult due to the fact that their language (known only as Language) must a.) be spoken by two mouths at once and b.) spoken with single conscious intent -- so they can't understand a programmed computer voice, or two people with distinct consciousnesses speaking at once; the only thing that registers to them as speech is one mind, speaking in two voices. Or, at least, a very close approximation thereof.
The staff and Ambassadors of Embassytown have gone to great lengths to create that approximation and keep a functioning level of trade communications with their host species, and it's gone OK, for a while. Unfortunately, one experiment is about to accidentally trigger something new, and horrifying -- a genuine linguistic apocalypse.
Caught in the middle of all this is our protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, a child of Embassytown who achieved moderate fame as a child by virtue of being enshrined in Language as a living example of an Ariekei simile: "the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her." Avice then rose to the status of minor celebrity by becoming one of the few people born in Embassytown who ever left -- and then came back, because her new linguist husband Scile (latest in a line of several spouses) has decided that he would like to write his dissertation on Language. Pretty soon, Scile starts to get a severe bee in his bonnet about the fact that a small group of Ariekei are using similes to teach themselves something that has previously been impossible for them as users of Language: how to lie. Though the problems this causes in Scile and Avice's relationship are fairly rapidly overshadowed by the aforementioned linguistic apocalypse.
This is already a long post and I haven't even mentioned about half the stuff in this book (the living architecture! the space travel! Avice's incredibly intriguing android bff!) It's probably the best showcase of Miéville's incredibly inventive imagination since the Bas-Lag books, but he's leveled up in plotting and leveled out in -- grimness? Not that this book isn't grim, at times, because it CERTAINLY is, and a lot a lot a lot of people (of various species) die, and there are certainly times when it seems like all hope may well be lost, but --
-- well, here's a thing that struck me very much, reading this book at this particular moment: as things get more apocalyptic in the book, I kept waiting for the random acts of senseless hate and prejudice that always appear in an apocalypse, and they never happened. Plenty of horrible things do happen, but they're all either accidental, or motivated by grim logic, or, at absolute worst, ambition. Hatred has a place in this book, but it's always personal. Xenophobia, even under situations that seem like they would almost inevitably create xenophobia, has very little place at all. That's enough, in this story, to allow a turn away from total catastrophe and into change and adaptation. And in spite of the fact that I would not ever call this book cheerful, there's something kind of amazingly optimistic about that.