If there is one thing that I can say about Charlie Jane Anders, is that she can commit to keeping things weird. Like, deeply, deeply, weird. She’s also not at all afraid to make ambitious leaps with her writing. Her first novel, All the Birds in the Sky was a broad, experimental urban science-fantasy mash-up, which ended up charming a lot of people. And while I could recognise the flashes of brilliance in the book, the whole thing didn’t come together in a way I found entirely satisfactory. The City in the Middle of the Night is a very different novel to All the Birds in the Sky in many ways, but they one way they are similar is in their commitment to keeping it weird.
In The City in the Middle of the Night, the earth has already been subject to a great calamity. At some time in the past, a number of survivors settled on the tidally-locked planet of January and founded two separate city-states in its precarious terminal zone: the highly regimented Xiosphant, and the free-wheeling, cartel-run Argelo. The two cities are a contrast in cultures; individually shaped by the class and social background their founders held on Earth.
In Xiosphant, we follow Sophie, a young university student of middling social standing, who takes the fall for a friend in the aftermath of a political protest. After nearly being killed by the authorities for her trouble, she befriends strange, alien creature who belongs to January’s native species, and sets on a path that will turn her life upside down.
The second protagonist, Mouth, is one of the last surviving members of the nomadic Citizens. Based in Argelo, Mouth has travelled to Xiosphant as a Courier. There, she discovers that a long lost relic of the Citizens’s is being kept in the city’s palace, and she’s willing to stick around to try and recover it.
The dynamics of each of these cities, while extreme, are not overtly odd in and of themselves. Instead, the book’s weirdness comes from other avenues. The descriptions given for the natives of January cement them as being very, very alien, both in appearance and in mentality. But then the human characters simply refer to them as ‘crocodiles’. The disconnect generated between what’s written on the page and what your mind generates subtly enforces the idea that we’re dealing with something so alien that you cannot truly comprehend it. And it’s not just the ‘crocodiles’, this sort of convention carries on throughout the book: ‘lemonade’ has green matter in it, as well as being chewy; ‘cats’ all have neck spikes and can be ridden like horses, and the people of Xiosphant drink a concoction referred to as ‘Gin and Milk’ which probably contains neither component as we know them. This is not our home planet. We are not in Kansas anymore Toto: we fucked Kansas up.
Along with being deeply weird, the second-best way I would describe The City in the Middle of the Night is being very millennial. Not in a Harrow the Ninth sort of way, which leaned heavily into the Very Online culture that defined our generation, but in a deeper, more political one. Sophie’s world would have never have come to pass if she didn’t get caught up in student politics. Both protagonists live precarious, unstable lives that would resonate with anyone younger than the age thirty-five. The discourse around identity and society, while heavily influenced by Ursula K. LeGuin, carries a very familiar, 21st-century flavour to it. To top it off, everything is overshadowed by the spectre of climate change, and what this means for humanity’s occupation on this tidally locked planet.
But one other thing that really stood out for me here – and it might seem inconsequential to some – is the very, very toxic friendship underpinning much of the narrative. Charlie Jane Anders portrayal of a young twenty-something who is utterly incapable of enforcing their personal boundaries or advocating for themselves is painfully real. Frustrating, but real.
I got very similar feelings from the concept of Aggrandizement in All the Birds, and the poisonous group dynamics that it facilitated – people higher up in the hierarchy used it to stifle others less powerful, under the pretence it’s for the greater good. This character does something similar in The City, except it’s self-inflicted: they allow themselves to be steamrolled because they think that’s how they demonstrate that they are a true friend – for the greater good. I’m starting to think that Anders has a real talent for picking apart the kinds of toxic dynamics that people, and young people, in particular, find themselves falling into.
After all this, does Anders stick the landing? Mostly. I found the conclusion of The City in the Middle of the Night far more satisfying overall than All the Birds. It’s not an Olympic ten out of ten though – I found the ending to be abrupt and some things were left unresolved – but I feel that this was a stylistic choice that might gel better with some people than others. And I thought I would never say this about a book because I usually hate having things spelled out to me, but there were one or two places where I would have appreciated an infodump!
I was leaning on giving The City in the Middle of the Night a three out of five, but I’m bumping that to three and a half, due to my appreciation of Anders’ dedication to bucking conventions.
Under bingo, I’m putting this under Friendship, because the dynamics of a certain friendship DOES drive much of the book. I don’t know if I’m subverting the intent a bit by having it being a really shitty friendship, but there’s no arguing that it’s an important one.