A story with this much death, gore and acid rain doesn’t deserve to be as hopeful as it is, but Charlie Jane Anders continues to prove herself as one of our best writers.
The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders is the type of queer-centered science fiction adventure that has reinvigorated the genre. Set on January, a planet that stays in perpetual night on one side and day on the other (unideal for colonization due to its extremes, yet colonized anyway), the story focuses on two duos of female friends and the cities that made and recreated them. One pair is Sophie and Bianca, a lower-class student and her aristocratic roommate who dream of changing the clockwork oppression of Xiosphant, a city of endless daylight that regiments sleeping, waking and working through coded bells and heavy shutters that force the population into a prison-like nocturne. Alyssa and Mouth make up the second couple. The former grew up in Argelo, a chaotic city run by nine crime families, and spent her life as an arsonist before turning smuggler. Mouth grew up on the road as a member of a nomadic tribe called the Citizens. As far as she knows she is the last of her people, and being a first-rate assassin and smuggler who works the dangerous route between Argelo and Xiosphant, the chances of the Citizens becoming fully extinct are high. But, Alyssa and Mouth are “road buddies,” meaning keeping each other alive has become an unbreakable habit no matter how often one betrays the other. Among these four women betrayals abound.
Anders evokes memories of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness with her world of endless light and darkness, the deeply flawed humanity of her characters and the monsters that roam the roads and the edge of night. Miéville is at his most engaging when affectionately exploring the intersection between what it means to be human and what defines a monster, and Anders does likewise with Sophie’s relationship with the Gelet, a race of creatures who live in the freezing night side of the world. Most humans call them crocodiles, dismissing the Gelet as animals to be hunted and eaten, but Sophie learns that they are sophisticated beings that communicate a collective memory through the cilia and tendrils on their bodies. She is not the first to contact the Gelet, but the first in a long time to communicate with them, and her openness could change the course of the relationship between the two species.
The Gelet serves as agents for one of Anders’s critiques of humanity. Our reading of the story is from a human-centric point of view that can’t be helped given the presumed humanity of this book’s audience. It becomes easy to see the Gelet not only as monsters but as aliens instead of natives of a colonized nation. With a subtle touch she shows how easily we ascribe concepts of normality out of ease and comfort, dehumanizing the different at the peril of our own morality. As Bianca, a self-styled revolutionary, furiously points out to Sophie, if the Gelet are to be seen as beings equal to humans, what does that mean for our struggles? With Xiosphant and Argelo, the oppressive clockwork city and the lawless melting pot, Anders’s cities feel like America, a country that is getting too used to dehumanization as domestic policy. It was Le Guin who once said that prediction wasn’t the purpose of science fiction, but describing was. Using that metric, Anders didn’t have to expend much of her considerable imagination on the human barbarism in her novel, using that energy instead for themes of climate change, the suicide engine of late stage capitalism and the all too identifiable tendency of returning to people who are no damn good for you.
At its foundations, The City in the Middle of the Night is a series of love stories. Sex doesn’t play a role, but trust, intimacy and partnership are continually repeated motifs. This also has to be one of the most unique coming-out stories ever published. Most importantly, Anders has created a rollicking adventure story full of palace intrigue, smugglers, pirates and giant squids that foregrounds four women who cause most of the trouble and solve their fair share of problems. It is a story of the human race again on the brink on a planet that appears ready to rid itself of a meddlesome species that can’t stop repeating its mistakes. A story with this much death, gore and acid rain doesn’t deserve to be as hopeful as it is, but Charlie Jane Anders continues to prove herself as one of our best writers. Her ability to surprise seems boundless.