At just over two hundred pages, China Miéville's This Census-Taker is a short novel or a long novella. The deceptively simple story is dreamlike and disturbing, and constantly oscillating between literary fiction (albeit with a Borgesian touch), fantasy, and horror. It is also a murder mystery.
And it's a secret Bas-Lag story. Let me explain.
As the narrator—unnamed in the present-tense storyline that appears every now and then in brief glimpses, and only ever referred to as "I" or "the boy" in the retrospective story—tells us, this is a "second book."
Wherever he is right now, he is told to write three books. The first is a book of numbers, lists, and calculations. It is written in ciphers. "This first book's for everyone, though almost no one wants it or would know how to read it" (p. 31). The third book is private; it is a book of secrets. The second book, however, is for readers. It's the book for telling: no code for that one. "But [ . . . ] you can still use it to tell secrets and messages. Even so. You could say them right out, but you can hide them in the words too, in their letters, in the ordering on lines, the arrangements and rhythms" (pp. 31-2).
So this book, this "second book" that you hold in your hands, is as much about telling the boy's story as it is a Borgesian book of secrets and secret messages. And there are several types of secret messages in This Census-Taker. In the words, the letters—and in the setting, in what is only half said, or said but not explained.
On the surface, This Census-Taker is a story about memory, fear, and trauma. It's the story of our narrator when he was a young boy, and how he witnessed something terrible, an act of violence too mind-shattering to put in words. And how he met the census-taker. The structure is fragmented, dissociative, wavering between the first- and third-person singular, the "I" of identification with the former, earlier self, and the "he" of distance, of having discarded that identity and grown into something, somebody, else.
The boy's story takes place in rough mountain country, described very much like something from M. John Harrison's more mainstream short stories like the early "Running Down." It feels—and here the epigram, a quote from Jane Gaskell that China Miéville blogged in 2013, first makes sense—as if the people are somehow set against the land, living there and growing things out of spite. Here, the boy witnesses something so traumatic he can hardly even describe what happened, what he has witnessed, who killed whom, whose blood was on whose hands, if there even was any blood at all. "'No,' I said. 'My father. Someone. My mother'" (p. 10).
With no trace of any crime, not even the local lumpen authorities believe him, and he is sent back to his father—whom he believes is a murderer. What unfolds is a dark, oppressive story dominated by fear and uncertainty—but which also yields unexpected moments of beauty and wonder.
[My father] made keys. His customers would come up from the town and ask for the things for which people usually ask—love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly—nd he'd make them a key. (p. 17)
The key magic described in the book recalls Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's brilliant Locke & Key comics, especially when the boy's interior monologue touches upon the key's origins: "Are the keys waiting for you? I didn't want to ask my father but I wanted him to tell me. Do you make them out of nothing or do you find their edges?" (p. 148)
This question as well as other occurrences in the background of the main story raise the question of the book's setting. Is this a secondary-world fantasy? Some words and descriptions make the setting seem rather post-apocalyptic, and there are various hints about wars in the recent past. China Miéville once also mentioned to me that he had an idea for another story set in Bas-Lag, the world of his novels Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), and Iron Council (2004)—and at least since Embassytown (2011) we should have realised that he loves underdescribing things and making the reader fill in the gaps. So, naturally, I went looking for secret messages. And I found at least two types.
The secret messages easier to spot are the ones that are aimed at readers from the protagonist's own world: hidden in palimpsests and acrostics. "Yes, there are papers here from when this story was started, not by me" (p. 32). A dialogue is taken up in the first letters of certain passages, a secret code meant for future readers (i.e., us) to decipher.
Keying, No Obstacle Withstands. (p. 34)
The other type of secret message is hints about the setting, which is why I'm convinced that this story is "secretly," subtly, set in Bas-Lag. It starts with underdescribed things in the sky:
On some days bigger and more intricate things than birds passed over us through that thin air, bustling and too high for me to make them out. If I was in his sight when they did so, my father would try that smile again so I thought he wanted to explain something to me, but he never did. (p. 20)
More hints, contained in the boy's mother's story of how she met his father, remind us of Bella Coldwine and other characters leaving New Crobuzon in The Scar:
"His accent. He used to think in a different language. He came to the port where I was working. He came by boat; he had to leave his own place, which is a bigger city a long way off, because of trouble there. He met me at my office. He told me he wanted to keep going, that he was only coming through. He needed to be somewhere smaller. Further away." (p. 55)
One day, out on the side of the mountain, the boy spots something from the corner of his eye.
"I saw something," I said. "A tree was walking."
[ . . . ] Not knowing why, I kept the flowers I had picked up in my closed hand.
"Maybe you only thought you saw something," she said, and paused. [ . . . ] "Maybe," she said, it sounded as if to herself as much as to me, "it was someone from your father's city." (p. 67)
If his father's city has cactacae inhabitants, humanoid plant-people with spikes and sometimes cactus flowers growing from their green skin, it might just be New Crobuzon. So what did the boy see? Later, he even gets more specific: "On that hill, there were none of the true succulents of the desert, that I knew from pictures, that I'd once imagined walking" (p. 114).
In another scene, the boy is drawing a city on the wallpaper in the attic room, filling it with figures, "some like small women wearing masks, some people squat as if they lived underwater" (p. 64).
We've seen this before: khepri women with beetles for heads, and vodyanoi. And apparently they are not just in the boy's head. Other characters in the story have seen them too:
[Drobe] pointed in the direction, he said, of the places about which he was trying to inform me. "That way," he said. "They come from there to count."
I had chalk in my pocket and I gave him a piece. He kept hold of the red-trimmed paper with his left hand to draw frogs in houses and people with wings with his right. (pp. 121-122)
They must know vodyanoi and garuda.
Fact or fiction? Does it matter? Whose soul is it that's said to be contained in a carved box, kept in a museum in a faraway city (p. 133)? Why does the father kill animals and drops their bodies in a deep, dark sinkhole? Why does he get so blank at times?
It takes a hundred and sixty-three pages filled with mounting dread and suspense without release until finally the titular census-taker arrives. He listens to the boy, and he believes him. And he is armed with a unique weapon, very much the opposite of Uther Dhoul's "possible sword" in The Scar:
"This?" he said. He took it from his shoulder and held it for me to see. "It's a combination gun. Look, two triggers. This"—he tapped the broad-gauge tube—"a shotgun. It spreads possibilities." He made an extending cone with his hands. "And this?" The other. "This rifle's a long-range single shot."
He showed me how he'd aim with it.
"You can shoot one, the other, or both. The rifle shoots right down the very center of the spread. Like an average. A range and its mean. This is an averaging gun." (p. 167)
Filled with mystery, suspense, and magic—and, above all, secrets—This Census-Taker is a lot more than you'd think at first glance. It contains many stories, and storyworlds, nestled inside each other. A lizard that spends its whole life imprisoned in a bottle is not just a powerful symbol, but also echoes a recurring motive from China Miéville's novel Kraken (2010). There are descriptions of trains and of people who have never seen the sea that remind us of Railsea (2012), and a derelict cinema much like the one inspired by London's Gaumont State building in "Looking for Jake." There are children's games like the one at the beginning of Embassytown, and there are many other recurring motives and personal favourites of the author's: Gaskell, banyan trees, sending lamps down sinkholes, angry birds, bats, trains, the sea.
Perhaps this is what Miéville's is implying when his narrator describes the “second book”: that This Census-Taker is a palimpsest collaboration between several works and several authors, and that it's about a writer and his identity, among many other things. Indeed, you can read the novella many times over, and you will always find more echoes, more meanings, more possibilities, more secrets. And if, after reading all the mentions of trains and destroyed machines, you're still wondering, as so many readers do, what happened to the Revolution in New Crobuzon that was very much a possibility at the end of Iron Council—don't fear: look at the last sentence of this book. The hidden one.
But you can also read it for the story on the surface, which is totally worth it.
Christina Scholz writes from Graz, Austria, where she is currently working on her PhD thesis on M. John Harrison’s fiction. She has published articles on science fiction, weird fiction, and superhero comics in Alluvium and on Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, and Wyrd Daze. She blogs at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.