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.
Each storyline eventually locked into place with the others, the entire globe is the setting for Watson’s exploration of humanity in The Embedding. Linguistics obviously a main motif, the subject becomes more metaphorical than theoretical as the story progresses, culminating in a juxtaposition at the climax that contains all of Watson’s socio-political commentary. Partially overt and partially sublime, the political dimension will surprise no one as the practice criticized has continued to exist in reality to this day, while that pertaining to the research on children remains more subtle, the imagery nicely symbolic. The aliens a mirror making the points evident, their mission is thematically backed by the theoretical possibilities of Sole and Pierre’s research. Coherent as a basic concept (I imagine an in-depth analysis would deconstruct Watson’s usage of universal grammar) and thus serving in symbolic terms only, how it fits both sides of Watson’s outlay is superb, resulting in a conceptual novel capable of inducing thought beyond mere entertainment.
In the end, The Embedding is one of those novels that may not do everything right in terms of subtle dialogue or “properly applied theory”, but what it does metaphorically, the heights of hypothetical profundity it achieves, and the relevant social commentary that results is more than worth the stylistic hiccoughs and advances in linguistic theory that have become apparent since. Undoubtedly there will be people who discount Watson’s usage of embedded grammar on technical grounds alone, or write off the novel as senseless humanism, but these people would fail to appreciate the book as a true exploration of one of the most fundamental aspects of being human: interrelation—the possibilities and actualities, and the implications for our future as a species.