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The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

book cover of The City in the Middle of the Night

I really enjoyed this book; I thought it was a perfect example of a character-driven tale in an immersively detailed SF setting. To be sure, it’s not a cheerful book, and the descriptions inside really play up the deprivations and bleakness of the future it imagines rather than painting a picture of an enchanting world you’d like to visit. That is the whole point, though, and the result is an awesome book.

The City in the Middle of the Night is set on a world which doesn’t rotate on its axis. The side facing the sun is permanently scorched by temperatures of hundreds of degrees; the side facing away is locked in permanent night, covered in ice, hundreds of degrees below zero. Only the thin sliver of the planet located in permanent twilight is survivable for humanity, so that's where they all live.

Humanity arrived on this world many generations before this story starts, and life has been so hard since then that they live amidst technology that they no longer understand, desperately patching them with dwindling supplies of resources to keep themselves afloat. There are two major city-states – Xiosphant and Argelo – whose divisions go back to their early years on-world and even before, to major conflicts aboard the Mothership. Both are fleshed out in thorough, but not overwhelming detail.

Also on this planet are its native inhabitants – a tentacled species most humans pejoratively call crocodiles, but which Sophie – who becomes their ally – calls the Gelet. The Gelet have found ways to carve a sustainable existence for themselves out of the harsh environment, and they realise that the humans thus far have failed. A major theme of the story is the way humans continue to consume all their energy fighting each other, ignoring the looming catastrophe, and whether or not they can be convinced to change direction.

The main characters are two young women – Sophie, a university student turned outlaw, and Mouth, the last survivor of a band of nomads who’s joined a smuggling crew. Each of them have a female friend with whom they’re intimately close – Bianca and Alyssa, respectively. This core group of four are one of the definite strengths of the novel – in many ways none of them are super likeable (and they end up in conflict with each other at least as much as they’re ever allied), but they’re all empathetic characters whose personal failings cause trouble for themselves, again and again.

If I was dissatisfied with anything about this novel, it’s the ambiguous ending. I think Anders intended for it to be positive – that humanity will find their way, but only incrementally over tens of generations, such that it can’t really be made clear in the novel. But at the same time, there’s no real evidence in the book that Sophie succeeds in her mission either – that all of the reasons why none of the previous attempts at change have worked are magically fixed now. What the ending does do is give a clear resolution to the conflicts between Sophie and Bianca, and Mouth and Alyssa, so in that sense at least it’s successful.

There’s so much I could talk about in relation to this book – the obsessive time-keeping of Xiosphant, designed to fluster people if they sense a single minute they could have spent better working; Mouth’s pain over the loss of her people and misguided efforts to find her place in the world; the colonial arrogance of humanity towards the Gelet; Bianca and how her genuine eagerness to do good leads to quite the opposite, because of her self-centredness… there truly is so much packed in here and for lovers of character-driven, social science fiction I would whole-heartedly recommend this.

★★★★

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.