At its worst, science fiction is cheap, shallow entertainment on par with mainstream popular fiction that fails to induce anything in the reader save the thought ‘time wasted’. At its best, however, science fiction can be a powerful tool for exploring the human condition and supply deep-reaching questions for thought. Done right, it expresses aspects of existence that literary realism can (literally) only dream of. After all, the opportunities for comparison and contrast, profundity and insight are exponentially myriad when the universe, not just the world, is your canvas. Taking full advantage of the possibilities, Ian Watson penned The Embedding in 1973. Using linguistics as a bounce point, humanity’s chances/willingness/ability to merge toward a common understanding are examined under a genre light that features aliens, political intrigue, jungle tribes, and language experiments in intelligent if not hackneyed fashion.
While there are several side stories, The Embedding can be divided into three main flows. The first is set in the deep jungles of Brazil where the Xemahoa tribe live. Pierre is a French anthropologist observing the tribe, taking particular note of their use of language. Rather languages: everyday speech is in a format readily translatable into other known languages, while in their religious ceremonies another language, a language which combines fungal psychedelics with embedded words and phrasing, is used. A controversial dam project threatening to force the Xemahoa away from their ancestral home and fungal grounds, it isn’t long before politics ad violence interrupt Pierre’s research. Meanwhile in the UK. a highly experimental language study is underway—one that would certainly be illegal were it performed today. Linguist Chris Sole teaches brain damaged children using embedded language, experimental drugs, and physical techniques that occupy the gray area of abuse, all in the hopes of not only better understanding human communication, but perhaps unlocking something deeper in the brain. Appearing about a third to halfway through the novel is the third storyline. Passing through the Milky Way is an alien ship, returning to its home world. Its mission to understand reality deeper than known reality, they come looking to barter knowledge for knowledge in the hope humanity may offer some piece to their reality puzzle. They, of anyone in the story, find the unexpected.