China Mieville’s wildly inventive settings are undoubtedly one of the reasons why his work has met with as much acclaim as it has. From the metropolis of New Crobuzon, where magic and technology coexist; to the city of ships grafted together in The Scar; to the endless train tracks of Railsea; the vivid sense of place is one of the pleasures of reading a Mieville novel. Although the town in which the action of This Census-Taker occurs is much smaller than a typical Mieville location, it still has the imaginative, eerie quality of his other settings. The sense of the town as a real place is bolstered by small details: a group of street urchins fishing for bats off the bridge over a gorge, a lizard raised in a green glass bottle, and the social distinction between town-dwellers and “uphillers.”
I’ve always loved stories in which the fantastical elements are understated or subtle—or those in which the events of the story could have either a magical or a mundane explanation. Another distinction between This Census-Taker and Mieville’s earlier work is that the possible supernatural elements are only hinted at, and they definitely take a backseat to the human drama. The narrator’s father, for example, makes keys that are implied to be capable of altering reality, but we never directly see them in action. (Whether or not certain events might have been facilitated by a key “off-screen” is another question.) There’s an early mention of “bigger and more intricate things than birds” that fly overhead, but we’re never given a more specific description of them. They could be dragons or airplanes or something else entirely.
But while Mieville has once again knocked it out of the park in terms of setting and atmosphere, I found the actual plot of this novella frustrating. Based on the description of the story, I expected it to be about the main character’s travels with the census-taker, but the title character doesn’t even show up until about three-quarters of the way through the book. Also, while leaving some mysteries unexplained can be a perfectly valid approach, Mieville takes it too far here. We’re never given a concrete resolution on whether the traumatic event the narrator witnesses at the start of the story truly is what he thinks it was. An important secondary character disappears, and we’re never told what happened to him. And we never find out the significance of a person who appears to be pursuing or spying on the census-taker. Instead of drawing the reader deeper into the story, these unresolved questions just feel unsatisfying.