China Miéville’s work is invariably clever, inevitably dense and usually interwoven with hard-left political and social concerns, but its author rarely loses sight of the delightfully mind-warping possibilities of his chosen genres. Last year’s story collection, Three Moments of an Explosion, offered brief slices of imaginary futures in which icebergs floated above London streets, archaeologists hauled crystal statues from the Mediterranean earth and urban hipsters attended parties wearing the heads of butchered animals. Railsea (2012), his most recent full-length novel, was a rewrite of Moby-Dick in which steampunk adventurers roamed the deserts on locomotives hunting giant ferrets and moles; previous work has featured twin cities occupying the same geographical space (The City and the City, 2009) sentient tattoos and chaos Nazis (Kraken, 2010), and intoxicating alien languages spoken at Festivals of Lies (Embassytown, 2011). His readers learn, often joyfully, to expect the unexpected.
Things are rather different with This Census-Taker, a novella so downbeat that it’s practically inscrutable, which marks time between Miéville’s recent collection of stories and the appearance of a full-length novel this summer. Narrated by an imprisoned bureaucrat, it is set in a society half destroyed by technological or human cataclysm: one character mutters that there have been ‘two wars… one inside, one out’, while another recalls that the people of a previous era were scared of all the engines, and they smashed them up. In the town near the narrator’s home, ‘unseen turbines’ spin to power street lights, but poverty and dilapidation are everywhere. A market sells ‘cuts from exotic animals’, including giraffe, and gangs of feral children throng the central bridge.
Against this backdrop, speaking sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third, Miéville’s narrator gives an account of a childhood spent in the hills above the town with his put-upon mother and his mostly emotionless father. The father is a manufacturer of keys, which the villagers believe to possess special powers: whether they do or not, like so much else in this novel, is open to speculation. He is also, on occasion, a homicidal maniac, who comes from another place, speaks another language, and is possibly being pursued by the armed census-takers whose ranks the narrator will later join. Whatever has happened in this strange end-times world, it has ‘all ended up with people sent to take stock, to count foreigners’; one such, wearing a dusty business suit and carrying a rifle, turns up towards the book’s end to recruit the narrator into a world of ‘line managers’, governmental oversight and subversive secret language.
Which is where the book ends, abruptly, unapologetically and without explanation, just as its narrator hints at a career of ‘numbers to run, in as many kinds of places as there are places, cities you could call invisible or uneasy or beleaguered, cities about which I won’t even start to write here, in this part of my second book that can only be a prologue’. Is this novella an overture to a longer work? I think not, and although I read a great deal of it with a sneaking suspicion that it was set in a remote territory of the fantastical dying earth of Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, we could equally well be in Africa, or a future Britain, or anywhere where war and division have left a government with a pervasive interest in cataloguing foreigners. More likely, the book’s apparent incompleteness and its evasive repertoire of gesture and allusion are parts of the designed effect. It has the air of a bit of paper blown on the wind from another universe: strangely evocative, wholly confusing, and signifying — who knows?