Although Ian Watson has not gained wide popular attention, critics and reviewers have admired him as one of the best science-fiction writers of ideas. Indeed, The Embedding, his first novel, was runner-up for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1974 and won the 1975 Prix Apollo in French translation and the 1978 Premios Zikkurath in Spanish translation.
Thematically, the novel explores the notion that reality is a construct of language, and therefore people who possess distinct or widely different languages would also have widely differing constructs of reality. This is the theory Chris Sole is testing out in his embedding world, and such is the Spthra theory of This-Reality in which they are embedded. Along with this exploration of an alternate reality, the story, set during the Christmas season, has a mythic dimension. The Xemahoa people, who tap into the deep myths through their drug-induced dance, look to the birth of the maka-i child for an answer to the rising waters that submerge the village—a far more potent myth for the tribe than the Christian version of salvation promoted by the priests who try to convert them. Ironically, too, the Xemahoa myth works, for after the baby is born, terribly deformed with brain hernias by the maka-i drug the mother consumed, the flood recedes. Kayapi, Pierre’s translator and son of the current Bruxo, eats the exposed brain of the child, supposedly ingesting the escaped dreams of his people, and thus becomes the new shaman.
The Spthra search for a universal language also has its mythic dimensions. According to legend, the Change Speakers phased with the Spthra thirteen thousand years earlier and then inexplicably left them, saddened and bereft. The Change Speakers may very well be the Spthra version of God, as some of the Earthling representatives suggest, and the Spthra quest is no less than a longed-for return to primal unity. Although the Spthra understand the anguish of unrequited love, they miscalculate the violence and rapacity of the human race and end their quest not in union with the Change Speakers but floating in outer space, destroyed by humanitys advanced weapons.
The Embedding is a densely packed novel, operating on many levels at once and showing Watsons daring exploration of ideas. This exploration has earned him a reputation as one of the twentieth century’s most challenging science-fiction writers.