China Mieville’s approach to genre fiction has always been a little oblique, and so, whilst in books like Perdido Street Station and Kraken, he lays the tropes on thick (usually with ulterior motives), he can also dish out books like Embassytown where, yes there are aliens and other planets, but the alien-ness is so heady and complex that explanation isn’t really his main concern. It can infuriate some of his readers, even some of his more die-hard fans who perhaps love the world of Bas-Lag, but found the inner machinations of socialist political groups of Iron Council to be a bit of a dull narrative thread. Even I found that some of his stories in last year’s otherwise excellent collection Three Moments of an Explosion, were practically impossible to penetrate. So it’s interesting to see his new book, the novella This Census Taker, doubling down on everything people criticise him for, and still come out as good as it has.
A young boy runs away from his home in the mountains to a nearby town, and when he arrives, he tells the townfolk that his mother has killed his father. Or is it the other way round? Someone has killed someone else. Or have they? His father has killed before, dropping the bodies of animals down a cave; and all that remains of his mother is a handwritten letter saying she’s left home. The titular Census Taker only shows up in the climax of the book and his job is just as shrouded in secrecy as the rest of the story.
On paper this sounds like a writer with no real idea about the kind of story he wants to tell, or someone who hasn’t thought enough about the world his characters inhabit – but this is Mieville, and This Census Taker is anything but ill conceived.
Mieville is writing about degrees of perception and understanding, his narrator cannot recall half of the major events that transpire in the narrative, and the novella swings from first to third person with a precise giddiness. It’s odd, and a little chaotic, but you always feel there’s a steady hand in control.
In the end then, This Census Taker comes across as Mieville’s attempt at a fairy-tale. The off kilter world he’s writing about is timeless, and the strange moral code within the story has a touch of the Grimm about it. Plus, it’s Mieville, so the writing is sublime. Its release as a standalone novella, rather than as part of a collection, lets it breathe; especially helpful given its haunting, strange ending.
Any Cop?: Oh yes, as with Three Moments of an Explosion it’s not going to change anyone’s minds about China Mieville as a writer. This is him at his most insular, and whilst I can see how that would turn off a lot of readers, I loved it.