Embassytown is science fiction. I found its strength to be the description of a faraway world, though there’s plenty of alien description, nothing is quite as fleshed out and compelling as the alien language, which is ultimately central to whole book.
The setting is a human outpost on a world call Arieka inhabited by the Ariekei or the “Hosts”. When humans initially make contact with Ariekei, communication is difficult.
Here’s an excerpt:
When the ACLers [Accelerated Contact Linguistics] and the crews came to Arieka, there started more than 250 kilohours of bewilderment. It wasn’t that the Host language is particularly difficult to understand, or changeable, or excessively various. There were startlingly few Hosts on Arieka, scattered around the one city, and all spoke the same language. With the linguists’ earware and drives it wasn’t hard to amass a database of sound-words (the newcomers thought of them as words, though where they divided one from the next the Ariekei might not recognize fissures.) The scholars made pretty quick sense of syntax. Like all exot languages it had its share of astonishments. But there was nothing so alien that it trumped the ACLers or their machines. (more…)