The City in the Middle of the Night

by Charlie Jane Anders

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Publisher: Tor
Copyright: February 2019
Printing: February 2020
ISBN: 1-4668-7113-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 366

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January is a tidally-locked planet divided between permanent night and permanent day, an unfortunate destination for a colony starship. Now, humans cling to a precarious existence along the terminator, huddling in two wildly different cities and a handful of smaller settlements, connected by a road through the treacherous cold.

The novel opens with Sophie, a shy university student from the dark side of the city of Xiosphant. She has an overwhelming crush on Bianca, her high-class, self-confident roommate and one of the few people in her life to have ever treated her with compassion and attention. That crush, and her almost non-existent self-esteem, lead her to take the blame for Bianca's petty theft, resulting in what should have been a death sentence. Sophie survives only because she makes first contact with a native intelligent species of January, one that the humans have been hunting for food and sport.

Sadly, I think this is enough Anders for me. I've now bounced off two of her novels, both for structural reasons that I think go deeper than execution and indicate a fundamental mismatch between what Anders wants to do as an author and what I'm looking for as a reader.

I'll talk more about what this book is doing in a moment, but I have to start with Bianca and Sophie. It's difficult for me to express how much I loathed this relationship and how little I wanted to read about it. It took me about five pages to peg Bianca as a malignant narcissist and Sophie's all-consuming crush as dangerous codependency. It took the entire book for Sophie to figure out how awful Bianca is to her, during which Bianca goes through the entire abusive partner playbook of gaslighting, trivializing, contingent affection, jealous rage, and controlling behavior. And meanwhile Sophie goes back to her again, and again, and again, and again. If I hadn't been reading this book on a Kindle, I think it would have physically hit a wall after their conversation in the junkyard.

This is truly a matter of personal taste and preference. This is not an unrealistic relationship; this dynamic happens in life all too often. I'm sure there is someone for whom reading about Sophie's spectacularly poor choices is affirming or cathartic. I've not personally experienced this sort of relationship, which doubtless matters.

But having empathy for someone who is making awful and self-destructive life decisions and trusting someone they should not be trusting and who is awful to them in every way is difficult work. Sophie is the victim of Bianca's abuse, but she does so many stupid and ill-conceived things in support of this twisted relationship that I found it very difficult to not get angry at her. Meanwhile, Anders writes Sophie as so clearly fragile and uncertain and devoid of a support network that getting angry at her is like kicking a puppy. The result for me was spending nearly an entire book in a deeply unpleasant state of emotional dissonance. I may be willing to go through that for a close friend, but in a work of fiction it's draining and awful and entirely not fun.

The other viewpoint character had the opposite problem for me. Mouth starts the book as a traveling smuggler, the sole survivor of a group of religious travelers called the Citizens. She's practical, tough, and guarded. Beneath that, I think the intent was to show her as struggling to come to terms with the loss of her family and faith community. Her first goal in the book is to recover a recording of Citizen sacred scripture to preserve it and to reconnect with her past.

This sounds interesting on the surface, but none of it gelled. Mouth never felt to me like someone from a faith community. She doesn't act on Citizen beliefs to any meaningful extent, she rarely talks about them, and when she does, her attitude is nostalgia without spirituality. When Mouth isn't pursuing goals that turn out to be meaningless, she aimlessly meanders through the story. Sophie at least has agency and makes some important and meaningful decisions. Mouth is just there, even when Anders does shattering things to her understanding of her past.

Between Sophie and Bianca putting my shoulders up around my ears within the first few pages of the first chapter and failing to muster any enthusiasm for Mouth, I said the eight deadly words ("I don't care what happens to these people") about a hundred pages in and the book never recovered.

There are parts of the world-building I did enjoy. The alien species that Sophie bonds with is not stunningly original, but it's a good (and detailed) take on one of the alternate cognitive and social models that science fiction has dreamed up. I was comparing the strangeness and dislocation unfavorably to China MiƩville's Embassytown while I was reading it, but in retrospect Anders's treatment is more decolonialized. Xiosphant's turn to Circadianism as their manifestation of order is a nicely understated touch, a believable political overreaction to the lack of a day/night cycle. That touch is significantly enhanced by Sophie's time working in a salon whose business model is to help Xiosphant residents temporarily forget about time. And what glimmers we got of politics on the colony ship and their echoing influence on social and political structures were intriguing.

Even with the world-building, though, I want the author to be interested in and willing to expand the same bits of world-building that I'm engaged with. Anders didn't seem to be. The reader gets two contrasting cities along a road, one authoritarian and one libertine, which makes concrete a metaphor for single-axis political classification. But then Anders does almost nothing with that setup; it's just the backdrop of petty warlord politics, and none of the political activism of Bianca's student group seems to have relevance or theoretical depth. It's a similar shallowness as the religion of Mouth's Citizens: We get a few fragments of culture and religion, but without narrative exploration and without engagement from any of the characters. The way the crew of the Mothership was assembled seems to have led to a factional and racial caste system based on city of origin and technical expertise, but I couldn't tell you more than that because few of the characters seem to care. And so on.

In short, the world-building that I wanted to add up to a coherent universe that was meaningful to the characters and to the plot seemed to be little more than window-dressing. Anders tosses in neat ideas, but they don't add up to anything. They're just background scenery for Bianca and Sophie's drama.

The one thing that The City in the Middle of the Night does well is Sophie's nervous but excited embrace of the unknown. It was delightful to see the places where a typical protagonist would have to overcome a horror reaction or talk themselves through tradeoffs and where Sophie's reaction was instead "yes, of course, let's try." It provided an emotional strength to an extended first-contact exploration scene that made it liberating and heart-warming without losing the alienness. During that part of the book (in which, not coincidentally, Bianca does not appear), I was able to let my guard down and like Sophie for the first time, and I suspect that was intentional on Anders's part.

But, overall, I think the conflict between Anders's story-telling approach and my preferences as a reader are mostly irreconcilable. She likes to write about people who make bad decisions and compound their own problems. In one of the chapters of her non-fiction book about writing that's being serialized on Tor.com she says "when we watch someone do something unforgivable, we're primed to root for them as they search desperately for an impossible forgiveness." This is absolutely not true for me; when I watch a character do something unforgivable, I want to see repudiation from the protagonists and ideally some clear consequences. When that doesn't happen, I want to stop reading about them and find something more enjoyable to do with my time. I certainly don't want to watch a viewpoint character insist that the person who is doing unforgivable things is the center of her life.

If your preferences on character and story arc are closer to Anders's than mine, you may like this book. Certainly lots of people did; it was nominated for multiple awards and won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. But despite the things it did well, I had a truly miserable time reading it and am not anxious to repeat the experience.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-07-27

Last modified and spun 2020-08-09