Category Archives: speculative fiction

The Naked Author 1: This Census Taker


Francis Spufford’s review of This Census Taker in The Guardian, heads the “stoic bleakness” in the novel with a choice of author photograph designed to bring out the same qualities. The familiar image of China Miéville: tats, muscles, shorn head, undisputed winner of any imaginary fight with pretty well any living male author of his size and weight you could name, is spot on. Having encountered him, on the other side of a book signing table, courteously and briefly explaining the meaning of “perichoresis,” the image remains, translated permanently into a muscular imagination of mindnumbing flexibility that nobody with any sense would think of arguing with.

What struck me about This Census Taker, however, was a glimpse of the naked author. I’m interested in the idea of the naked author; this for me is where something appears in the story that remains unresolved. Why China Miéville and why this novella? Because Miéville’s ability to hew out new genres by virtue of an imagination you could break rocks with proves the unresolved feeling at the core of This Census Taker is nothing to do with an inability to tell the story.

That is in not in any way to suggest the imagination isn’t still on rock-breaking form. It is another extraordinary experience of a world both familiar and then – not. Headlong as the boy running down the hill screaming in the opening paragraph, the tense shifts, POV breaks, swoops, returns, little animals dislodged from their genres scuttle ahead. The ride has started. Now keep your hands inside the car!

” I shouted, ‘My mother killed my father!’ “

This, said at the end of the opening section, is not fixed or certain; it soon becomes apparent that this is the complete opposite to what he thinks has happened, and we have no way of knowing, by the end of the book, whether that has happened or not.

Miéville’s fiction, any reading of his sparse non-fiction political standpoints confirms, has no more authorial authority than a ride operator sending you, strapped into immobility, on your way. Miéville does not establish his authority by being Miéville but by his skill as an author. Which is why I think we see a glimpse of the naked author in a story which leaves uncertainty at its heart. After all, we are not in the hands of the ‘unreliable narrator’ of less ambitious storytellers as the reveal on the boy emerges early. He is unreliable by virtue of being a boy, and the unsettling shifts in his age, while including the adult, never give us the simple resolution of adulthood or a simple rite-of-passage tale. He achieves authority and adulthood but we have no more sense of what the authority is based on than we know what his father’s skilled craftsmanship of keys to unlock impossible secrets, consists of. The craftmanship of Miéville’s world-building in this novel, in primitive retreat from some apocalyptic state to urban fable, the glimpses of the fully-fledged worlds of his other novels, are like one of the keys. We are handed a key crafted with enormous ingenuity, but it doesn’t unlock the story.

The only reason, for me, why a writer of Miéville’s imaginative muscle would not give us the key to this world, is that we are not supposed to have it. This Census Taker is crafted with great skill to leave us, regular readers and committed apprentices of that skill alike, with something beyond solving. The confusion of the boy, left by one parent in a way that throws doubt on the other is left vividly unresolved. He finds stability as a census-taker;  but whether or not he is this census taker, the authority of a “census taker” in this post-apocalyptic world is unclear.

Like the hole in the hill that receives the dismembered animal bodies of his father’s unexplained episodes of violence, the mystery of the mother’s disappearance is never fully explained. Like the boy, the story skirts around the contents of the pit, revealing possibilities of the unspeakable without answers. The craftmanship in leaving this uncertainty at the heart of This Census Taker makes this, for me, one of the most vivid examples of the naked author.

The next example appears in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.



No More Puppies in Who


Credit: BBC/Steve Brown

In Handing Over the Sonic Screwdriver I wrote:

Nine-hundred odd years of knocking around the universe, you’ve got to see in the Doctor’s eyes when it’s just not funny any more.

In Stephen Armstrong’s article for Radio Times 17-23 May, he reports Steven Moffatt as saying of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor:

He’s not a human being, however much he larks around pretending to be … He’s not apologising, he’s not flirting with you – that’s over.

Now, I’ve not been lurking in Steven Moffatt’s brain, or indeed Peter Capaldi’s; the closest I’ve got is sitting on a sofa, drooling with admiration at the results of their work six feet away on a television screen. But we have

a match.

We have a match, which comes down to No More Puppying Around in Who. Steven Moffatt explains it as pre- and post-Day of the Doctors and who are we to argue with the screenwriter who has satisfied thousands of fans (and non-fans) with an anniversary episode that could have played safe but really, really didn’t.

Steven Moffatt says the two Doctors who met up with John Hurt’s brutal old warrior from the Time War were “puppying around the place” trying to prove there’s too much light in them to do anything very dark. Now that whole doing-a-dreadful-thing has been reversed, the Doctor:

… goes back to being the trickier version of the Doctor, the fiercer alien wanderer.

Cor, bring it on.


Handing over the sonic screwdriver

This has nothing to do with the place of sci-fi on the “small” screen (have you noticed they qualify as an entire wall now?) shifts in storyline in the Doctor Who seasons, or even how Malcolm Tucker is going to turn into the next Doctor, let alone Matt Smith into Peter Capaldi.

I sat down to watch the announcement of the Next Doctor in the same spirit as the Cup Final, Wimbledon and the last eppy of Broadchurch. Caught the vibe and punched the air when they announced Peter Capaldi. He’s just right for me, after the romantic Doctor of David Tennant and the physical, alien presence of Matt Smith. The 12th Doctor will no doubt be funny, but  he’ll also be scary. Nine-hundred odd years of knocking around the universe, you’ve got to see in the Doctor’s eyes when it’s just not funny any more. I don’t expect Peter Capaldi to use either the sonic screwdriver or the word “fuck” much, he’ll just look at things and they’ll nod and sidle away. I would, to be honest.

I’m waiting for a Doctor who has been bending time and the universe for ever to keep it safe for us little, mainly stupid, people to mess around in, occasionally learning stuff. Watching the Doctor fall in love was like watching two people cuddling on a sofa. Who for me  is about recapturing the moment where I hid behind the sofa. I think he’ll deliver.

I don’t analyse Doctor Who, it’s just something running alongside my life on an increasingly large screen. Yesterday was important for that reason, just a punch the air moment.

Peter Capaldi, you’ll rock.

London Urban Fantasy


I knew I’d seen it, here is proof of the existence of London Urban Fantasy from Jo Fletcher Books, @JoFletcherBooks. Quite rightly, grabbing people by the arm, Twitter-wise and dragging them over to point out The City’s Son by Tom Pollock alongside WILL SELF and NEIL GAIMAN. I’m an ex-typesetter, if I’ve broken out the bold formatting that means my excitement has overcome my professional ethics. I’m excited for Tom Pollock, who took great care in signing my copy (although we weren’t, as the background suggests, in a detritus-filled roof gutter at the time).


But mainly I’m excited as a writer to look at a designated bookshelf in Waterstones with Will Self, Tom Pollock and Neil Gaiman on it that my book would fit on. So I’m feeling slottish again, my book wants to strut its stuff in front of a bookshelf like this with a friend nearby, exhorting, “Work it … wooorkkk it” as the sound of Richard Gere knackering his clutch filters in from the road outside.

Or shelvish, which is the same thing but with Lionel Bloom and pointed ears.

China Miéville is the Boss


It struck me, watching China Miéville come out on stage at the Purcell Room yesterday, that in a fight with any current modern author, he’d win. To begin with it was the muscle, the tattoos and the piercings. Then, when he started to talk, I realized it’s because he is seriously Intelligent (the capitalization isn’t a typo). He writes New Weird, but is in no way weird himself.

He was there to give an archaeological literary examination of London as a source of speculative fiction, visionary edge and a growing, niche genre of urban fantasy.

Within two minutes he’d used half a dozen terms, perfectly understandable in context, which I should have written down. One I had to ask him to put in my signed copy of The City and the City.

The word of the day = Perichoresis

It was the combination of Boss-ness regarding words as well as inks that led me to refer to “The Big Bang Theory” in the Q&A. Suddenly I wasn’t sure I knew sweet eff ay about the use of language.

I’m going to need to get hold of a transcript before I can do “Visions of London” justice.

For the moment, I’m just really worried I’ve written China Miéville into Skinny Inkers as Ink-tup.