Book review: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

(cover image courtesy Titan Books)

One of humanity’s great contradictions has, and I suspect, always will be, our ability to dream big but never quite deliver on all the glitteringly-promising hopes and dreams.

It’s not that we don’t get there at all; take a look around at the technological prowess of the world and you will see invention and ambition made manifest, dreams made flesh and hope turned into something real and tangible.

And yet, for all the fulfillment of what might and could be, we constantly undo ourselves by overreaching ambition, propensity to violence and authoritarianism, cruelty, over-indulgence and the souring of the good and the hopeful into something altogether far less inspiring and sometimes just plain bad.

That is the one of the central threads running through Charlie Jane Anders’ superlatively-imaginative novel The City in the Middle of the Night, in which, eons after humanity fled a dying Earth (yep, we did it again) on a giant Mothership full of everything residually good and great about us, and settled on the tidally-locked planet of January, we remain disappointingly locked in the up and down, mostly down not surprisingly, cycles of old.

Part of the problem is that January is inimically opposed to us being there; an innately hostile planet that because it’s locked position in the cosmos has one side perpetually in blinding, flesh-melting sun while the other sits in dark, limb-freezing, it forces us to inhabit the dusk/dawn line in the middle of the planet, trying to make the best of a home that is not evolutionarily accommodating to us.

“Everything is a different shape in the dark. Sharp edges are sharper, walls farther away, fragile items more prone to topple. I used to wake next to my family, all of us in a heap on the same bedpile, and imagine that maybe in the darkness, I could change shape too.” (P. 11)

Thus, the socially and politically regressive city state of Xiosphant, from which one of our two protagonists, Sophie, hails, and Argelo, its polar opposite, a freewheeling den of crime and iniquity which is nevertheless everything its dour counterpart is not (the home of Mouth, our second narrative focus), exist in a world which seeks with regular thoroughness to scour them out of existence.

True to form, humanity has taken what little promise January, a world of vicious carnivorous beasts, hostile environments and eke-out existences, offered and turned into a dagger aimed right at our collective heart.

Not the most appealing of premises you might think, and on a cursory evaluation you might be right; The City in the Middle of the Night subverts this well-worn sense of hopelessness and trope-heavy dystopianism though by offering up two protagonistswho dare to hope.

Their hope isn’t a epiphany-resonant, shout it from the rooftop kind of thing; in fact, much of the time it struggles to be survive and be heard at all, facing obstacles aplenty from friends, acquaintances, frenemies, and social and political hierarchies such that they are inclined more often than not to simply give up.

Charlie Jane Anders (image courtesy official Charlie Jane Anders Twitter account)

But, and this is crucial to this brilliantly-evocative novel, they don’t, and it is their willingness, particularly, Sophie’s, to keep hoping and acting when everything screams at her not to, for god’s sake just don’t, that sustains this engagingly-immersive read.

The City in the Middle of the Night is held aloft by their hope, their inherent belief that things can get better, even as they confront again and again, evidence in abundance that humanity is a collective fool’s errand that has somehow, through luck and happenstance, managed not to extinguish itself from existence.

The worldbuilding that wraps itself around these two highly-likeable, flawed yet tenacious characters, is magnificently-executed.

From the opening pages, we are given an amazingly rich and detailed vision of life on January, of the voyage of the Mothership whose technology remains on the ship in orbit while humanity goes backwards in a million different ways, and of social conventions that illustrate both humanity’s endless ability to adapt, create and synthesis something new from the bones of the old and its capacity to thwart that promise at every turn.

“The founders of that city had a valid theory of human nature, but they took it too far. That’s the problem with grand social ideas in general, they break if you put too much weight on them.” (P. 212 hardcover edition)

Throughout the twistingly-intense and ruminatively-emotional journeys of Sophie and Mouth, both of whom carry scars innumerable to go with their hopes for something better – in Sophie’s case this promise is sourced from a place and a people that no one on the planet save for her and Mouth can conceive of – we are witness to the age old truth that humanity is capable of much greatness but also much fallen decrepitude.

Yet, for all this grim acknowledgement of the lesser angels of our nature, clad within a story that is never less than richly-invigorating, emotionally-insightful and exciting and horrifying in equal measure, The City in the Middle of the Night manages to be suffused with a sense that there might be a better way forward.

With its feet most definitely anchored in dream-limiting clay, this is not the kind of hope that exists in greeting card rhyming couplets, all easy inspiration and heartwarming homilies; rather it is grittily embedded in an appreciation of life that knows the struggle is hard and the payoff, hard-won and possibly not worth the effort.

But even so, the hope is there in Sophie and Mouth, two people who, separated from us by thousands of years of dreams and hopes and flawed, mortality-threatening execution, keep pushing forward on a planet that might be more inclined to help them that they, or anyone else realises, a tantalising promise that sustains and enriches this utterly-compelling and brilliantly socially-aware piece of sci-fi storytelling.

(cover image courtesy Tor Books)

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