It’s been out for quite a while, but I just recently got around to reading China Miéville’s latest book, the novella This Census-Taker. It was a really quick read, at just 130 pages, and I very much enjoyed it, although I wish it had been longer and explored the setting a bit more.
That, I think, was the only drawback of the book: Miéville revels in describing fantastic worlds — it’s his biggest strength as a writer, in my opinion — so for him to take such a restrained approach with This Census-Taker means that I’m left feeling the tiniest bit deprived. I wish Miéville had expanded the end, and unveiled more and more of this weird world. I wish we could have seen the narrator’s full journey from his childhood to the “present day” from which he tells his story.
Maybe the reason I’m feeling deprived is because I think I started to uncover some clues throughout the story, but they never added up to a satisfying answer. These clues were inserted sparsely in description and dialogue, and they pointed to the unearthliness of the setting. A fanboyish part of me started to think that maybe they were pointing in a particular direction, one that the real fans would recognise. You can probably guess where I’m going with this — I mean, I made it the title of this blog post.
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In lieu of a real book review I’m going to talk mostly about the setting of the work. I’m no literary critic, so I couldn’t begin to unpack here the deeper meaning of the work, the potential allegory and metaphor and themes propping up the story. There are probably a hundred reviewers who have already done that, and I plan to find their reviews later and read my way to a better understanding of the novella.
What I really want to do in this post is just nerd out a bit, and examine those clues I talked about. I want to see if I can structure an argument to convince myself, let alone anyone else, of my hunch. I really want to ask the question: is This Census-Taker set in Bas-Lag?
Oh but before I proceed, I should mention that I was very kindly given a free copy of the book by the UK publisher, Picador. Thanks very much to them! I hope this post convinces them to send me more stuff in the future. I’m a serious book blogger, I promise!
And finally, a spoiler warning for what comes ahead. Be sure to have read the novella first!
I’ll list below each part in the book, be it a whole section or just a passing piece of dialogue, which made me sit up and think that Miéville was giving a hint about the world the story is set in. Like I said before, I can’t really say if it all adds up to a definitive answer or not. I’ll let you be the judge. Afterwards, just to undermine myself, I’ll briefly talk about some “counter-clues” that might mean I’m completely on the wrong track. Anyway, here are what I think are the main clues (with page numbers corresponding to the UK hardcover, published by Picador):
The walking tree
The first time I thought about Bas-Lag while reading this book was when the narrator recounts seeing a living creature made of plant matter, moving amongst the vegetation on the hill. This strange encounter takes place on pages 43-45. It’s almost a non-sequitur to the rest of the book, and it’s a very intriguing moment that never gets explained.
The narrator describes the figure being 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. How mysterious.
I think the description matches the cactacae from Bas-Lag perfectly! They’re hulking vegetable people covered in spines. Some of them even have a few flowers blooming amongst their spines. As for the mother’s comment, we know that the narrator’s father is from a city far away to the east — is this city New Crobuzon? The Bas-Lag metropolis has a fairly large subpopulation of cactacae, so it could well be. The mother’s words are too good a hint to ignore. I just wish the strange visitation was followed up on in any way!
The father’s city
The city where the narrator’s father is from is a mystery in itself. It gets mentioned a lot throughout the story, and we find out eventually that it’s where the census takers are from as well. The city has a specific history that is told by Drobe on page 58: first there was a war with “mechanicals” (which is supposedly where that creepy wooden head that haunts the narrator is from), then “problems on the trains”, then two wars, “one inside, one out”.
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 the kind of paranoid reaction New Crobuzon’s government might have. Could we find out more about this in a future Bas-Lag book?
The ranting spider
This one’s really sneaky. On page 55, 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”. Doesn’t that sound like the Weaver? If this is a small town somewhere in Bas-Lag, perhaps sightings of the Weaver have spread slowly through the collective consciousness, so that to children in a small town it’s one of a pantheon of imaginary monsters. I like to think so. It’s such a specific combination of words that I can’t see how Miéville isn’t hinting at the Weaver here!
On page 82, 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”. 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).
On the topic of drawings, earlier on in the book (page 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”. Again, the collective consciousness thing. These figures could be a child’s vague idea of what khepri (beetle-headed women) and vodyanoi look like, based on second- or third-hand descriptions he’s overheard.
I might be reaching a bit more with this one, but it still feels like a very clever, obscure clue.
Okay. Time to cool my enthusiasm a little. While there are a handful of compelling possible connections to Bas-Lag in the novella, overall the world doesn’t feel like the Bas-Lag we know. Every time I felt absolutely certain I was reading the next Bas-Lag book, some reference brought me out of it again. Despite the weirdness, it sometimes feels too modern, too Earth-like.
One example 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. Also, many kinds of animals are mentioned throughout the story, and they’re all very earthly animals — although I honestly can’t remember all the fauna that appears in the Bas-Lag books, and it would take forever to cross-reference every animal in this novella with those works.
Most importantly, in an interview conducted after the release of This Census-Taker, Miéville was asked if he would ever return to Bas-Lag, and his answer, while not definitive, seems to lean towards a “maybe one day but not yet”. But, who knows. He could be choosing not to reveal too much in the initial press coverage of the book’s release. If he truly buried these clues in there for fans to find, then it would make sense that he wouldn’t go and spill the beans immediately.
It’s really hard to say if these counter-clues outweigh the evidence I listed. But even if it turned out that this world isn’t Bas-Lag, it’s still a weird and unique world. It has magic in it (for instance, the father’s keys), it has horror (the unknowable hole in the mountain), it has a fascinating history. It’s a world only Miéville’s imagination could spawn.
Before I finish, I just want to touch on a tantalising moment right at the end of the book (on page 138 of the UK hardcover edition), where the narrator says that he has come to write a lot in his life about his travels and his work. He goes on to say that it is too much to write about in this book “that can only be a prologue”.
Is the novella This Census-Taker just a prologue to a longer, more epic work? Will we read more in the future about this world, its history, and the life of the narrator? If this is indeed the fourth Bas-Lag book, is it just the prelude to an upcoming fifth one? I hope we find out soon.
I love when a book is built around a secret — one that a lot of readers may not even get, but if you take the time to examine the clues, it’s incredibly rewarding.
If you’ll allow me a tangent here at the end, the best example I can think of is Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds. It’s a decent steampunk-ish SF adventure, nothing spectacular plot- or character-wise; but the best part of the book by far is its setting. It’s never spelt out in the book where the story is set, but there are numerous clues throughout that smart readers will pick up on. I won’t spoil it — but let me just say that while all the characters think they’re on Earth, they’re not, at all. They’re actually somewhere else, somewhere very specific, and it’s possible to figure it out. It’s one of the cleverest things Reynolds has ever worked into his books.
I really hope that I’m right about This Census-Taker, that it hides a similar setting-based puzzle in its pages. It would be another layer of depth to what’s already such a layered and intoxicating story. An alternative possibility is that Miéville put the references in knowingly as a fun, metafictional treat for his fans, but the book just isn’t set in Bas-Lag. The most disappointing possibility is that I’m totally reading too much into it, and all of the clues I’ve mentioned are coincidences. I really doubt this possibility though.
If I ever get the chance, I’ll ask Miéville directly about the clues I think I’ve found in this novella. Until then, at least it’s fun to speculate. I have the audiobook of the novella now as well, and I’m going to listen to it on my morning walks to work. I might even uncover more clues the second time around, and if I do I’ll let you know!
Update: Wow, I went googling immediately after publishing this post, and found another (much more coherent) article on Strange Horizons arguing the same points as me, and much more. It’s a great piece, so be sure to read it!