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This Census-Taker – China Miéville

In past posts, I’ve alluded to the divide within the speculative fiction world, wherein on one side stands the group that wants to elevate unheard voices, shine a light on different stories, and push the boundaries of our boundless universes just a bit farther. From the other side wafts a miasma, that same stench that has consumed U.S. politics which, in this case, wants to make science fiction “Great Again.” That group calls itself the “sad puppies,” which isn’t a joke, somehow. Anyway, their continued efforts to bend the system to push certain works toward award nominations have been less effective than previous years, though not entirely ineffective. Which brings me to This Census-Taker, by China Miéville.

I had planned not to read any of the puppy-nominated books from the 2017 Hugo nominees list, but I’d been meaning to read China Miéville for a while, having had his work recommended to my time and again by friends and colleagues the world over. Despite what follows, I will very likely try another Miéville in the future.

This Census-Taker is a book that, for me, never quite took off. It blends elements of fantasy and horror within a surreal framework, muddied by the unreliable narrator, a nameless boy who tells the story in pieces, from different periods of time, and with varying levels of basic knowledge. For all its artistry, the (quite good) writing isn’t able to give the requisite lift to the book. It falls flat.

There’s a murder (maybe), and a (possibly) bottomless hole where his (suspected) evil father dumps the (presumed) victims of his homicidal tendencies: animals and humans alike. Sometimes, the story moves one step outward, telling a loose frame story—the nameless boy, older now, in some kind of incarceration, is writing down the details of his childhood—but that, too, remains somewhat bland. This Census-Taker becomes even more lackluster when comparing it to the other nominated novellas from this year’s Hugos—Black Tom, Vellit Boe, and Every Heart a Doorway in particular, which I had read shortly before sitting down to listen to the audiobook of This Census-Taker.

As I implied above, I don’t indent to blackball Miéville from my to-read list as a result of my less-than-stellar affair with this novella. He’s a fascinating figure who has amassed an impressive corpus, and I’m curious to see his takes on other genres.

Maybe you, friend, can convince me to pick up one of his books sooner. Give it your best shot in the comments.

2 Responses

  1. I’ve found that China Mieville likes to write with an intellectual force behind his words, which sometimes means looking up obscure words in a dictionary, but in my experience this helps establish worlds.

    My only experience so far has been with his Bas-Lag/New Crobuzon series beginnins with [Perdido Street Station](

    I have to say, Perdido Street Station was excellent, and I highly recommend it if you want to give him another shot. It’s a steam punk/fantasy world that he creates, and the story that takes place is both bizarre, grotesque, and wonderful. Back to my point about his word choice, I found that it works here because the world is so bizarre that China’s use of strange descriptors helps establish a new vocabulary that colloquial english just won’t accomplish. It’s an example of one of my favorite forms of writing where imagery, words, and structure all blend wonderfully.

    Personally, I don’t think China Mieville fits the Sad Puppies (seriously, what a joke) category except by the default fact that he is a white male writer from the UK. Indeed, some of the themes I’ve found him to write about in Perdido Street Station, and The Scar, are far from their ideological tenets.

    1. I wouldn’t say that I had trouble with his language or worlbuilding, rather that the pieces of story never coalesced into anything that grabbed my attention and held on. As far as his “puppy appeal,” I completely agree. They seem to have put a mannequin of him—the standee of a white male author from the UK—into their canon, ignoring his long-standing involvement in socialist movements and other activities that seem counter to the libertarian principles that dominate that group.

      I’ll give Perdido Street Station another look…thanks for the recommendation!

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