The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
The second novel by Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night (2019), surprised me. Having read her fantastical debut novel All the Birds in the Sky, and her sociological science fiction novella Rock Manning Goes for Broke, I was not expecting a story set on an exo-planet and a society vastly distant from Earth in time and space. While the story has the modern sensibility Anders personifies, the challenges the human settlers face hark back in some ways to the golden age of SF. It’s a thoughtful, heartful take on first contact, among other things.
The planet of January is not hospitable to humans, but they’ve managed to eke out a living for hundred of years. The planet does not rotate; the only place human life can exist is in the narrow zone where the sun-side makes a transition to the night-side. The story follows two characters, Mouth and Sophia, as they travel between two human cities, Xiosphant and Argelo, at a time when the already-precarious human hold on existence on January is starting to slip even more.
Sophia is an orphaned lower-class student at the Gymnasium, the Xiosphanti version of university. Her room-mate is the beautiful and charismatic aristocrat Bianca. Bianca starts taking Sophia to various “secret” meetings with other students. Bianca is a revolutionary, but she also loves getting dressed up and going to aristocratic parties. When the police crash one of the meetings, Sophia takes the blame for an infraction Bianca committed. The police drag Sophie out of the city into the “night-zone,” the freezing side of the planet, and leave her to die. To Sophie’s surprise, she doesn’t die — instead she has an encounter with one of the planet’s native lifeforms, an encounter that changes her life and the lives of those around her.
Mouth is the lone survivor of a small group of nomads who called themselves Citizens of the Road. She is working with a group of smugglers who have come to Xiosphant to sell Argelan wares. Mouth learns that a rare artifact of her people is being held in the Xiosphanti royal palace, and manipulates Bianca and her group, who are planning some sort of coup. Soon, Bianca and Sophie are on the run and have joined Mouth’s smuggler band. They both hate Mouth for what they see as her betrayal, but she and the smugglers are the only ones who know the way across the Sea of Murder to the other human city.
Each city has dealt with the harsh environment and the dearth of resources in different ways. In Xiosphant, things are completely regimented, so structured that the words, “Sleep when you’re sleepy, party when you want,” is a revolutionary catchphrase. The city uses bells, plumes of colored smoke and armed police to mark off the time periods. They use a different form of currency for each kind of transaction; there is food money, shelter money and luxury money, for example. All this keeps people so anxious, so focused on meeting the rules, that they don’t have time or head-space to evaluate the system that controls them. The official language is highly structured as well, with verb-tenses that define the status of the speaker relative to the one spoken to. Argelo, on the other hand, is a town of merchants and traders, artists, and non-stop parties, but the city is actually ruled by the Nine Families, and Argelo is filled with sickness and poverty. As Mouth comments, “You could do whatever you wanted in Argelo, but so could everyone else.”
Bianca has not given up her revolutionary ideas, and even though Sophie has misgivings, she keeps being drawn back into Bianca’s orbit. Sophie’s continued contact with the native beings, who the humans call “crocodiles,” is changing her world view, but she can’t get any traction with Bianca. The communications from the locals, who Sophie calls the Gelet, are warning her of something increasingly dire.
The structure of The City in the Middle of the Night is seven relatively short sections. The book is not a series of novellas, because each section raises the tension and sets the stage for the next piece. The momentum of the book never flags. At one point, when they’ve arrived in Argelo and Bianca is taking Sophie to an endless round of parties, I did wonder what was going on. Mouth’s story in that section held my interest, though, and soon enough I saw through the glitter of the party scenes to what was happening underneath, as Anders intended. My favorite part of the book was Section Six, when we, along with some of the characters, visit the city in the middle of the night, the subterranean complex created by the Gelet. We learn more about them and what they are asking of Sophie.
Like most alien planet stories, a few things raised my eyebrows. I really do have trouble believing that the mothership, still in orbit, has computers that still work after several hundred years, and that humans can still decipher spoken and written language from centuries ago. Anders is not the first SF writer to request the “willing suspension of disbelief” for this sort of thing and she surely won’t be the last. She says in her afterword that she fudged some of the science facts of a tidally-locked planet. I found the writing of the planet of January so compelling and vivid that I easily forgave her the fictionalized science. Anders’s real interest in the story is sociological and cultural, and she sounds all the right notes here.
I especially appreciated the use of old-Earth words; it isn’t just “crocodiles” and “bison,” but “coffee,” “donuts,” and “sour cherry.” This demonstrates a certain failure of imagination (and arrogance) of the humans from the mothership, and foreshadows the communication chasm between the humans and the Gelet.
Near the end, I found a conversation Sophie has with one other character to be a bit too on the nose. It was the only place I really bumped out of the book for a second and thought, “Really?” Fortunately, this was the last few pages, and didn’t jeopardize my engagement with this thoughtful story.
Anders weaves a tale that is suspenseful, heartful and dark, sprinkled with her signature wit and whimsy. Sophie’s search for meaning and Mouth’s quest for redemption were meaningful, dramatic in the best meaning of that word. It’s not too early for me to say The City in the Middle of the Night is going on my Best of 2019 list.