Solitair vs. The Hugos 3: This Census-Taker

Houses built on bridges are scandals. A bridge wants to not be. If it could choose its shape, a bridge would be no shape, an unspace to link One-place-town to Another-place-town over a river or a road or a tangle of railway tracks or a quarry, or to attach an island to another island or to the continent from which it strains. The dream of a bridge is of a woman standing at one side of a gorge and stepping out as if her job is to die, but when her foot falls it meets the ground right on the other side. A bridge is just better than no bridge but its horizon is gaplessness, and the fact of itself should still shame it. But someone had built on this bridge, drawn attention to its matter and failure. An arrogance that thrilled me. Where else could those children live?

I’ve held China Mieville in high esteem for years, based almost entirely on reading Perdido Street Station in college. Whatever problems that book may have had with prose, characters and plot, the setting and its aesthetic have remained some of my favorites. So I came into This Census-Taker high expectations; I should have seen my disappointment coming.

This Census-Taker or; Nobody Gives This Kid a Straight Answer is about a child in a rural village who lives a life ruled by vague disquiet and magical realism. His father makes keys with unknown functions for no repeat customers. There’s a hole in the backyard with no apparent bottom, where the father has tossed the bodies of animals he’s killed, possibly including his wife. As the boy grows more fearful of his dad, a census-taker shows up to take him away on an apprenticeship. His attempts to alert the police about his mother don’t work, and the friends he makes in the village part ways with him while he’s not looking.

That’s when it feels most of the story’s circumstances happen: “while he’s not looking.” The biggest problem with this story is that it straddles the line between subtle implication and just plain wasting time. Here and there are interesting details, like the aforementioned keymaking, his father acting like he wants to care for his son without knowing how to do it right, and a flash-forward where the boy explains that he has to write and keep three books, each with a different purpose. However, the rest of the time the story meanders between banal details of life in the village while the boy feels threatened by his father. At one point the boy’s pronouns switch from first- to second-person and back again for no reason.

I wanted to give this story another chance. Maybe there was a deeper significance to it that I missed, and the prose isn’t bad once you get past the lack of a consistent purpose behind it. Plenty of books have flown over my head in the past, only for me to appreciate them later. The problem is, those books take time to appreciate because they have a surplus of detail, so much that it’s hard to know what has another meaning to it and what’s just there for flavor. This Census-Taker doesn’t have much of either, and I’m bummed that I paid upwards of ten dollars for it. I’d still like to read more of Mieville’s work, but I expect more out of him than this.

FINAL NOVELLA BALLOT:

  1. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
  2. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  3. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
  4. NO AWARD
  5. Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
  6. This Census-Taker by China Mieville
  7. A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

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