Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Review of This Census-Taker by China Mieville

After a three year break, genre favorite China Mieville returned to the scene in late 2015 with a collection of largely unreleased stories, Three Moments of an Explosion.  A step forward for Mieville, the collection shifted away from the (relatively) conventional arenas of horror and dark fantasy seen in his popular Bas-Lag and Kraken novels toward a more focused and mature side of his fiction.  With the release of This Census-Taker in 2016, the direction is confirmed.  A novella to be experienced as much as read, the darkness haunts without any ghosts or monsters.

The three-year break giving Mieville the chance to really bring to bear his talents, This Census-Taker shows a writer fully in control of his craft, something that could not always be said of his earlier verbosity—ahem, fiction; This Census-Taker simmers in deceivingly simple pain and beauty, on the page and in the mind, sucking the reader in.  About a boy living with an abusive father in the hills outside a town that barely survived the collapse of civilization, the shadows of Mieville’s forest loom without anything apparent blocking the light. 

And it is a dark, often ambiguous forest.  Lacking standard horror tropes, the story nevertheless feels haunted; Mieville motivates the reader via mood and atmosphere as much as the traditional elements of storytelling, plot and character.  As Librarything member tottman writes: “There is a sense of disquiet created, even a sense of foreboding. It pulls you forward but you have no idea what awaits and if you should anticipate it or dread it,” which is entirely accurate.

The boy’s tale switching tenses and times, the effect is also that any concrete realities underpinning This Census-Taker remain elusive.  Purported to be told by the boy when he’s older and in prison, Mieville never lets the reader get fully comfortable with the perspective, or even the boy’s home life—his mother equivocal and edgy, and his father threatening and distant.  Questions follow—who? how? why—all the while the fascinating simplicity of his experiences (reminiscences?) tantalize and discomfort.  Like a table hanging in midair, the reader can clearly see its legs are not touching the ground, yet cannot find the means above which suspend it.

Seeming to confirm a new direction for Mieville’s fiction, This Census-Taker is an intangible yet vividly delivered experience as much as, if not more than, a traditional story.  The narrative subjective, its hints, suggestions, and traces play a larger role in reader awareness than any neon signs or directional arrows.  I have a feeling that due to the less than concrete, more abstract nature of the story Mieville’s mainstream fans may bounce off the novella.  Then again, the presentation is at times is so subliminally visceral its effect may be unavoidable.  Regardless, it will be interesting to see in what direction Mieville takes his third release in one year, the upcoming The Last Days of New Paris


  1. Good to hear, Jesse -- I have been intrigued by this novella and am quite eager to read it. Most of the reviews I've seen thus far have been negative, mixed at best; indeed, a lot of mainstream fans bouncing off of it. New Paris intrigues me enough that I preordered it, and I agree, it will be interesting to see if it confirms a new direction... though it's not like Mieville has ever settled for writing a safe/comfortable genre novel, he's been exploring new dimensions in genre for most of his career.

    1. I haven't read any mainstream reviews, but it's nice to hear my assumptions ring true ;). I read only the responses from The Guardian and Huffington Post, both of which were positive...

      I'm on the fence whether or not Mieville has been exploring new dimensions throughout his career, hence my comment that I think Three Moments and Census-Taker represent a new direction for him. By Mieville's own admission (granted a few years ago, now), he loves writing "killer monster stories". The Bas-Lag novels certainly have a novel aesthetic, but at heart they tell relatively - emphasis on 'relatively' - standard tales involving said monsters. Perdido is a tale of scary soul-suckers trying to take over a city. Iron Council, with its inchmen and golems, is another monster story, even with its revolutionary overtones. The Scar, well, I don't know. That one does seem unique on all fronts. :) Later novels such as The City & the City, while having the beautiful idea of cross-hatching, runs on the engine of detective noir. Embassytown wholly utilizes a neat linguistic conception, but otherwise remains standard sf . And Kraken, what more to say except paranormal monster/occult tale? :) For 100% sure Mieville has had brilliant, original ideas, but in Three Moments and Census-Taker it seems clear he's moved away from applying his originality to not only monsters or other plot devices, but even standard modes of storytelling. I suspect New Paris will be the full confirmation, but have to wait and see. Like you, I'm greatly looking forward to it.

      Hope you enjoy This Census-Taker.