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This Census-Taker is a fantasy novella by China Miéville, published by MacMillan in 2016.

Information[]

The story is told primarily from the point of view of a young boy, whose recollections are unreliable and disjointed chronologically, with occasional segments that are written at an undefined point in the future and are recounted by an older version of the narrator. The boy (unnamed in the novella) lives in a remote house on a hill with his father and mother. They are on the outskirts of a community that is formed of a town built around (and on) a bridge that joins the hill with another. Much of the town is dilapidated, with ruined machinery and buildings left to rust and ruin. It is not explained what events led to this decline. [1]

Epigraph[]

"Like all these long low squat houses, it had been built not for but against. They were built against the forest, against the sea, against the elements, against the world. They had roof-beams and doors and hatred—as though in this part of the world an architect always included hatred among his tools, and said to his apprentice: ‘Mind you’ve brought along enough hatred today.’"
—Jane Gaskell, Some Summer Lands

Plot Summary[]

The father makes keys for the townspeople who come to visit him, which have magical properties attributed to them. The relationship between the parents is tense, and the boy occasionally witnesses the father killing animals and throwing the corpses into a crevasse in a nearby cave. The boy suspects that his father has also killed people in the same way. His mother grows crops and takes them to the town to trade, and to scavenge in the deserted areas of the settlement. In conversations with the boy, she says that his father came from a city, wanting to escape from it.

The boy witnesses a violent confrontation in his house. He flees to the town and initially reports that his mother has killed his father, before amending his story and stating that his father killed his mother. Two volunteer law officials go up the hill to investigate, leaving the boy in the care of street urchins with whom he is friends. The volunteers return, and after saying that they could find no evidence of violence, and after finding a letter purportedly from the mother saying that she was leaving, return the boy to his father's care. The boy fears his father, still believing that he has killed his mother and that he has hidden the body in the hole within the cave.

The boy attempts to run away, crossing the bridge to the other half of the town with the street children. They are followed and after being beaten by an official is collected by the father. One day, when his father is away, a man with a gun identifying as a census-taker appears. He claims to be from the father's city and is responsible for locating and accounting for its inhabitants. He descends into the hole after hearing of the boy's belief as to his mothers fate, although what he finds is not revealed. He tells the boy to hide himself while he awaits his father’s return. After some time, the census-taker reappears and out of sight of the boy, drops something else into the hole. He then asks if the boy wishes to leave with him and become his associate. The boy agrees.

The sections set in the future imply that the boy has been imprisoned and is recording the information that he has collected in three books. He had a predecessor who also worked with the census-taker, whose fate is unclear and may have been present in the town during the events of the past. A coded message within the book he is writing states that the census-taker was rogue. [2]

Connection to Bas-Lag[]

While This Census Taker is never explicitly said to be set in Bas-Lag, there are numerous hints throughout the novella that put the book almost without a doubt in the same setting. Many of the hints in particular allude to the third and least-read of the Bas-Lag novels, Iron Council, which perhaps might explain why this isn't a more popular theory.

  • The narrator describes seeing a figure from afar made of “tough vegetation” with “spines on bunched and distinct knotty skin”, and when he investigates the scene he finds some flower petals and spines left behind on the ground. He later tells his mother he saw a walking tree, but she brushes him off by saying that it maybe was someone from his father’s city (pg. 43-45).
    • This is almost certainly a reference to the Cactacae. This notion is further supported by the fact that this creature is never mentioned again, which would seem to imply Mieville was simply putting in a little easter egg.
  • The mother also describes the being as potentially being from his father's city, which brings us to the mentions of that same city within the novella: a war with “mechanicals” , then “problems on the trains”, then two wars, “one inside, one out" (pg. 58).
    • Again, this perfectly corresponds to the history of New Crobuzon. We know from Iron Council that there was a purging of the city’s constructs (robots) after the events of Perdido Street Station. Then, the flashbacks in Iron Council tell of the rebellion of the train workers that leads to the formation of the titular council. Finally, the present-day events of that novel tell of two wars New Crobuzon is fighting: one with the rival city of Tesh, and one with its own populace. One inside, one out. It all fits so perfectly.
    • The next stage of the mysterious city’s history is the great census-taking, which we only hear about in very vague terms in this book. For some reason the city decides that it needs to send agents out into the world to find out where all of its citizens are. Sounds like just the kind of paranoid reaction New Crobuzon’s government might have after the war from the "inside."
  • The narrator talks about how the children of the town below him wanted to know about the monsters they thought lived on the hill. A few of the monsters are listed, and one of them is a “ranting spider” (pg.55)
    • Almost certainly a reference to the Weaver, which is by definition a ranting spider.
  • Earlier on in the book (pg. 43) the narrator is drawing a city on the wallpaper in the attic of his house, and he populates that city with “small women wearing masks” and figures that are “squat as if they lived underwater”.
    • These figures could be a child’s vague idea of what khepri and vodyanoi look like, based on second- or third-hand descriptions he’s overheard.
  • When the town children hide the narrator in an abandoned theatre, Drobe talks again about the city where the census takers are from. While he’s talking, he draws some curious things with chalk: “frogs in houses and people with wings” (pg. 82)
    • Drobe’s got the city in his mind, so perhaps he’s consciously or unconsciously thinking of its denizens and drawing them while he speaks. Such figures could easily be Bas-Lag’s vodyanoi (amphibian people) and garuda (bird people).

Counter-Examples[]

  • The primary counter-example to the idea that This Census-Taker is set in Bas-Lag is the types of technology that are mentioned — printers, flashlights, generators, and so on. These modern devices just don’t seem to fit Bas-Lag; they speak much more to a modern-but-post-apocalyptic Earth. [3]
    • However, given how rare sightings of Xenians are, it could be possible that the place in which the narrator lives is an extreme distance away from New Crobuzon, and that their technology is therefore highly different. After all, technological differences between places like New Crubozon as compared to places like Tesh, Gengris and the Witchocracy are often massive as is.
  • It could also be a possibility that Bas-Lag is itself a post-apocalyptic Earth.

Citations[]


China Miéville's novels and other works
The Bas-Lag Cycle

Perdido Street Station · The Scar · Iron council · "Jack"

Other novels

The City & the City · Embassytown · King Rat · Kraken · Railsea · Un Lun Dun

Novellas

The Last Days of New Paris · This Census-Taker · The Tain

Short story collections

The Apology Chapbook · Looking for Jake · Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories

Nonfiction

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution


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