The ever shifting chameleon of fantastic literature, China Miéville’s first publication since the short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion last year, the novella This Census-Taker is a full hundred pages longer than any of those pieces yet sits alongside them as comfortably – or otherwise – as any of them can be considered of a piece.
More abstract than any of his full novels, even the willfully oblique Embassytown, it is a flow of words swirling downstream, flashes of a life washing over the reader without context, often apparently contradictory or at least hesitant, it uncertain even in the eyes of the narrator who refers to himself in both the first and second person, “the boy, I.”
Living high on one side of a deep valley, he is “an uphiller,” but this is not the divide between the haves and the have-nots so much as the have-littles and the have-less. The older children from further down, the bridgetown, will allow the boy to follow them, to watch them as they play, but although he may mingle he is not one of them.
In the house atop the hill his parents have separate bedrooms, the boy with a small room between. His mother harvests frugal offerings from the garden and trades what they do not eat themselves, his father makes keys of hopes and promises for the people below, and kills animals and throws the carcasses in the crevasse at the mouth of a cave beyond their home.
Perhaps it is the memory of that incident which mingled with the moment he stumbled upon and compelled the boy to run to the bridge and say to the others what he thought he had seen, or maybe he genuinely witnessed the murder of his father at the hands of his mother.
As in Railsea, this is a glimpse into a world with an undiscussed history whose present has been shaped by that past; like Embassytown, language is a concern, the boy pointing out that the language he now writes is not the one which he describes his mother teaching to him, the books he is creating composed of secrets and ciphers, and like all of Miéville’s work the boy is an outlier in a community of outcasts, of misfits, of freaks, and over all hangs an air of desperation driven by inescapable decay.
Tied to a situation which he, as a child, cannot escape, the story circles rather than progresses, each iteration a new attempt to break the cycle, and despite the additional page count it feels less complete than the stories of last year, a fragment of a baffling dream whose true meaning – if there is such a thing – is hidden in the dark of the pit or the mist which rolls up the sides of the valley.
There is a sense that this is an exploration of an idea on the part of Miéville, something he wished to get out of his system before focusing on his latest novel, the alternative history of The Last Days of New Paris, due later this year, and the late arrival of the census-taker, supposedly an agent of organisation, formality, structure, instead adds another layer of mystery and complication. Though he may not be what the boy wished for or expected, he is still a possibility, a rogue element in the system which offers an alternative which may be better than the present situation.