I haven’t read a China Miéville book in ages, so this slim little novella seemed as good a place as any to jump back in. It’s a strange, unsettling story, with a tighter focus than Miéville normally shows. This is still a political book, everything Miéville writes is, but it perhaps has a greater focus on the personal.
This Census-Taker has a strange setting, a sort of desolate fantasy dystopia. There are hints that this world is not our own, but Miéville isn’t interested in world building here, with the setting being used primarily to create mood and atmosphere. There are a couple of hints that it may take place in the Bas-Lag setting seen in Perdido Street Station, but if that is the case it isn’t particularly important to the story. The protagonist is an unnamed young boy, who runs into his village screaming that his mother has killed his father. Lacking evidence, he is forced to return home to his terrifying and homicidal parent, living in constant fear, with his only allies being a group of street urchins.
It’s a relatively straightforward story by Miéville standards, but thoroughly unsettling. Miéville has flirted with many different strands of horror, most effectively with Lovecraftian cosmic horror, but domestic horror may be some of the scariest, the fear of what lurks within your own home. Very few characters are named and they are generally thinly drawn, but this is more about creating an atmosphere than anything else. Hints to wider events are welcome and suggest that this is a world gone very wrong, expanding into the broader social commentary Miéville is so well regarded for. The titular census-taker doesn’t show up until close to the end, but he’s an intriguing figure with hints to complex motivations. Some have suggested that This Census-Taker could almost be a prologue to a larger work and I wouldn’t mind if that were the case. The novella asks some interesting questions I wouldn’t mind seeing answered.
This Census-Taker is a clever, unsettling slice of fiction I’d recommend to any Miéville fan. He hasn’t published a full novel since 2012s Railsea, so I hope there’s another one not too far away.