Big Ideas in a Slim Package: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

With his last release, the short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion, barely six months behind him, China Miéville starts off the year with a brand-new novella.

Don’t be deceived by the shorter length, though; This Census-Taker packs a lot of challenging ideas into a slim story. In all honesty, writing a review of this novella after only reading it once feels exceedingly difficult. There is a hypnotic, nightmarish feel to the loose events contained herein, which is as appropriate as it is harrowing as we watch the narrator’s traumatic story unfold. The boy—sometimes “I” or even “you”—lives on a steep hill, across from another hill, connected by a bridge that contains a town. The novella opens with the boy fleeing his home after witnessing his mother kill his father. Only then he believes his father killed his mother, but there is no physical proof. Yet there is damning behavior suggesting the father, a kind of magical tradesman, has been working in the service of an older evil. There’s a hole in the hill, you see, where the father delivers murdered creatures and customers, and very likely, the narrator’s mother.

The father’s guilt is only one question within a larger mystery, though it provides an appreciated emotional linchpin when the boy is reluctantly, awfully returned to his father’s custody. “Challenging,” “nightmarish,” and “harrowing” are probably not everyone’s favorite adjectives for fiction, granted. But Miéville’s most loyal fanbase will likely enjoy This Census-Taker for the theories it inspires. So, too, will readers of more literary fiction with minimal genre elements. Other readers, however, might find This Census-Taker atypically sparse on world-building.

I very much expected to enjoy This Census-Taker as I’ve enjoyed most of Miéville’s post-The City & The City fiction, even as other long-time fans have felt frustrated by the madcap Kraken caper, the language (and Language) of Embassytown, and the less characteristically Miéville-ian (read: incendiary, grotesque) shorts in Three Moments of an Explosion. There is a tenderness to the portrayal of a child trying to carefully navigate around his unhinged father and his beloved, aloof mother. My issue was more with the wider world beyond the narrator’s own hill.

After the opening scenario we spend a lot of flashback time with the narrator as a largely solitary child. It’s a slow burn at the start, trying to orientate ourselves in his lonely world of farmwork and imaginary play. It’s not until he meets street urchins Drobe and Samma that his mother entertains the thought that perhaps her son is in need of some friends. Miéville particularly excels at writing young adults and the narrator’s adventures in town with Drobe and Samma are some of the novella’s most vivid.

At home, the chilly parental relationship grows ever colder when the son witnesses his father kill a dog and toss it into a nearby cavern. Then This Census-Taker starts to brim with foreboding. Adding to the heightened strangeness are the interludes from the narrator’s present, as a grown man working as the successor to a census-taker from a forbidden order.

What crime has the narrator committed? What justice exists in this Kafkaesque world? There are hints to be gleaned in the text—this is a society post-collapse. Great cities have their own laws, but the people who maintain them are far from the narrator’s hill. Indeed, the hillfolk, the upsiders, have their own way of life, separate from the people downhill in the town.

And yet, I never understood precisely what the census-takers were really counting in their books and why they went rogue. The most fascinating aspect was the question of who the narrator might be “performing” this story for, what hidden meaning was written into this allegory? Was it for a friend, a sympathizer, a foe?

When This Census-Taker fades away at the last, like the tail end of a bad dream grown murky upon waking, readers’ opinions will likely fall under one of two columns. There are those readers who desire answers as a just and explicit reward and then there are readers who simply enjoy asking questions. More than in most of his long list of stories, This Census-Taker suggests that Miéville counts the latter group as the audience for this particular performance.

This Census-Taker is available now from Del Rey.

Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com, covering book reviews, gaming and TV, including Game of Thrones. She’s also discussed entertainment for Boing Boing and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. A student of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ workshop, her short fiction has appeared in ChiZine. Follow her on Twitter.

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