The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
The cover of The City in the Middle of the Night boasts a blurb by Pulitzer-winner Andrew Sean Greer, calling its author Charlie Jane Anders “this generation’s Le Guin.” For those uninitiated with Anders’ work, that praise may initially seem too high to support. Such comparisons should not be lightly made. However, Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky and Rock Manning Goes for Broke were among my favorite reads last year. I’m a budding fan, ready to believe the hype, and am now proud to report back: He’s right.
I quibble with the choice of Le Guin. Anders is a somewhat less serious self-taker, working as often with whimsy and kindness as intellect, and her tone reminds me less of Le Guin than Gaiman, another epic modern mythmaker. But I do not quibble with the imaginative power on display in The City in the Middle of the Night. I don’t know if anyone can with a world this creative and captivating.
In this universe, a human colonial operation landed on January, a tidally locked planet on which one side is forever day and the other forever night. One side is searing heat and blinding daylight, the other deathly cold and deeply dark. Humanity lives on the strip of half-dusk land between the two sides, strung like a beaded belt across January’s circumference. Their settlements are failing, the colonial expedition faced tragedy from the start, and generations later, they’re regressing. Technology is unsustainable and going backward, the climate is changing, governments overstep, and in between, three human women work to survive and shape their world in very different ways.
Sophie is a soft-hearted university student, who is pulled into radical activities by her crush and first love, Bianca, an upper-class girl groomed to rule the status quo who wants to ruin it instead. And then there’s Mouth, whom I loved for her journey. Mouth is the voice of the broken and desperate, the real human cost of our species’ joint mistakes. She is the part of us that survives in the face of the impossible and sees clear harsh realities.
Mouth would never forgive the Gelet for what they’d done, but she could understand it. You might mistake understanding for forgiveness, but if you did, then unforgiven wrong would catch you off guard, like a cramp, just as you reached for generosity.
The concept is rich, the world enthralling, the characters round. The alien lifeforms in The City in the Middle of the Night are also delightfully imaginative. “Bison” with armored hides, for instance, or the plot-significant and telepathic “crocodiles,” aka Gelet. I would have enjoyed the latter more, however, if I could have pictured the creatures entirely, a feat I never managed. The Gelet were only appendages and vague shapes in my head, and that’s a shame. The novel’s other weaknesses lie in the plot, which is herky-jerky, spiking and then drifting. Characters hang around locations longer than necessary for unknown reasons. Despite the supposed connection to Earth, some details seem too human or too tied to today’s culture to be plausible. The tone also drifts into young adult at times — though both Gaiman and Le Guin are known for the same.
Even so, oh, the ending made me weep. Full, chin-trembling tears. Sophie’s pure love, Bianca’s blind ambition and Mouth’s many tragedies will live on in my mind, no doubt, as will the image of January with its vicious reality and yin-yang beauty from space. As usual, Anders strums the chords of the zeitgeist with themes of inclusivity, identity and community, even if this novel doesn’t quite reach the quality of her first breakout, All the Birds in the Sky.