This Census-Taker

By China Miéville

In recent years the popular SF-Fantasy writer China Miéville has been shifting some of his attention away from stories toward the way stories are told. Questions of semantics and narratology have taken center stage in what have become pared-down fables of interpretation.

This Census-Taker is a short coming-of-age novel set in a fairy-tale world. We have no idea where or when we are. A boy lives with his parents in an isolated house on the side of a hill. Further down the hill there is a town. Inside the hill is a hole.

The boy’s mother goes missing. The boy suspects his father is responsible, but isn’t sure. Given the indeterminacy of the narrative voice, the reader can’t be sure either. Nothing is clear.

When, for example, the boy comes to describe “a holy old woman or man” he once saw in a cave, he immediately starts backtracking from what he knows, to what he remembers, to what he saw, “if I saw anything, if there was anything to see.”

Into this land of misty meaning comes the Census-taker, a bald, bespectacled bureaucrat carrying a curious “combination gun” who has been sent to “make a record.” He gathers information and counts things. Just the guy to sort matters out, if that’s what you want.

But for a book as open-ended as this, the question of “what you want” it to say or mean is very much left open.

Assuming it’s not all a dream, one reading might be that in a vaguely post-industrial yet pre-digital world that very sense of openness is something threatened by the Census-taker. Even the technology of writing shapes reality in different ways depending on the form the writing takes and the purposes it is being put to. But the power to reduce people and things to information, mere items on a ledger, bestows an especially dangerous authority – all the more dangerous for being invited into our homes.

There’s always a tension in such stories between suggestion and opacity. This may, in turn, be part of the meaning of the Census-taker’s threatening gun, which can be very precise from a distance or spread damage over a wide range of “possibilities” at close range.

Everything in a book is a symbol. You just have to pick your poison.

Review first published online September 12, 2016.

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