Thursday, February 28, 2019

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

This was a real treat to read! I seriously could not put this down. I loved the characters, and the worldbuilding is deep, weird, and inventive. The whole novel is an adventure—something I forget that I'm always looking for, until I find such a good example. Although there's plenty of darkness—dystopia, struggles for survival, tragedy and betrayal—the work as a whole has tons of exuberance. It's a sophisticated but unpretentious take on classic science-fictional topics, and I devoured it.

The story takes place on January, a tidally-locked planet colonized by humans. In the narrow strip between perpetual day and perpetual night, humanity has adapted to the world's challenges. Our main characters meet as a revolution is brewing, travel to a rival city, make forays into the night, encounter some of January's original inhabitants, and generally have an exciting time.

No plot recaps, but possible spoilers below:

The novel alternates viewpoints between Sophie, a student who is drawn into the revolution, and Mouth, the last survivor of a nomadic culture, who has turned to smuggling and other violent pursuits. Both characters grow a lot through the novel, with Sophie growing up and into herself, while Mouth has to sort out her relationship with her vanished people. Although they physically accompany each other for several journeys, Mouth's and Sophie's stories are more parallel than intersecting. They both revolve around other people—Sophie in particular spends most of the novel fixated on Bianca, a fellow student; their friendship, concealed attraction, and conflicts drive much of the novel. Mouth's partner Alyssa is a point of sanity and stability, and, while she often fades behind the much-flashier characters, is a critical character at several points.

These two partnerships make for a rich web of connections—it's fascinating seeing Sophie & Bianca navigate the same places as Mouth & Alyssa, and having very different experiences. Sophie figuring out her future self while Mouth tries to resolve her past is not something that hits you over the head, but makes for good dynamics. They're both coping with trauma of different kinds, they're both outsiders in different ways—Sophie is at some intersection of class, sexuality, and possibly neurodiversity that set her, in her own mind at least, as an outsider—and I really love the way that their intimate relationships, not necessarily sexual, are such a part of this story's fabric. The strength of Sophie and Mouth as characters, and that of the larger cast, makes the novel's settings and plots hang together really well.

I read Anders' previous novel, All the Birds in the Sky, with a few different book clubs, and a take that emerged from those discussions was a certain kind of not-necessarily-bad messiness inherent to the novel; one gets the sense of other drafts and versions poking unevenly around the edges; The City in the Middle of the Night has a similar feel. It accrues more plot-lines and themes than one would expect, and that very complexity, that untidiness, is part of its charm. I think it works so well here because of how the characters have emerged from those complexities; they're grounded in them, which anchors the reader as well. I found myself thinking of it a little bit in comparison to Mieville's Perdido Street Station—another novel that reflects in form some of what it explores thematically: a messy, complex accretion, like any city or history.

The City in the Middle of the Night (there's just no handy way to abbreviate that, is there?) could have easily focused solely on the society of Xiosphant: a rich and not overly-caricatured dystopia. Its totalitarian fixation on controlling its citizens lives put me initially in mind of L'Engle's world of Camazotz, or Zamyatin's regimented, rational city in We. Fleshed out with believable characters and contradictions, however, this schedule obsession seems barely fantastic, only the slightest Black Mirror-y exaggeration of the kind of time-controlling bureaucracy that exists all around us—the clocking-bathroom time attitude revealed in that article about Facebook mods making the rounds, for instance. These two takes on the city—a dystopia either fantastically silly or terribly mundane—hung out in my head in a kind of superposition that made the city feel very real for me. When Sophie is suddenly targeted by the police, it's the kind of state-and-society-sponsored violence that's both surreal and all too common in the real world: the sudden eruption, out of the boring status quo, against those for some reason labelled outsider or sub-human.

There's certainly a novel's-worth of ideas in Xiosphant alone—I both love and hate Anders' restraint in not as-you-know-bobbing us an in-depth explanation on the insomnia-driven crisis that launched this new Circadian order, or the anti-hoarding multi-currency system (a nugget that feels like something a Stross or a Doctorow would explore at chapter length). There's loads of interesting detail and invention—the farmwheels that rotate crops into usable light exposures, the way that class intersects with the physical layout of the city, the café where Sophie helps citizens "put their Timefulness to sleep", the thematically-on-the-nose obsession with shutters. So it's astonishing to me that Xiosphant and its revolutionaries are just one thread in this novel; Mouth barely cares about it the whole way through, and one of Sophie's major arcs is basically the way she gets free of the city's hold on her. I love the way that Sophie outgrows the conflict that would have completely consumed her in a simpler story. The coming-of-age element of the novel works so well partially because of the way it captures the way the world itself seems to expand as you grow—the city of Xiosphant & her close circle of students are Sophie's entire reality, and then, like a door opening, she sees this much larger world: the fantastic and dangerous wilds, the dramatically different city of Argelo, and a fascinating non-human civilization.

The worldbuilding here is fantastic. There's a slightly blurrier reality-level than I was expecting: the almost active darkness of the night side, the ocean that freezes on one side and boils on the other. It's less a super-rigorous Hard SF story, more of a delightful thought experiment that isn't afraid to play up the wondrous elements of its scientific premise. I was reminded quite a bit of Hal Clement's novels and the way they take big astronomical ideas as exciting plot points. Anders has clearly done a lot of thinking about living on a tidally locked world (and research, as we glimpse in her recent Atlantic article), but I really like the way The City in the Middle of the Night reads: kind of magical, rather than focused on a bleaker astro-realism.

The worldbuilding is much wider than just the geography, with rich glimpses of evolving human cultures. I love the several-steps-removed history: there's no doubt that these are descendants of Earthly humans, but there's been intervening chapters of on-planet crises and reformations, and the generational legacy of tragedies and machinations on the ship that brought them. Even the Earth cities that funded the ship did so at a point in our future where change and disaster had dramatically altered the geopolitical scene, while still leaving a recognizable thread to our reality: a future wherein subterranean versions of Zagreb and Ulaanbaatar have become superpowers such that they can fund interstellar colonization—and leave traces of Croatia and Mongolia on January, centuries or millennia down the line.

The one bit of construction that doesn't quite work for me is the convention of using "archaic Earth terms" as laid out in the "translator's note". I'll grant that the initial moment of encountering a "crocodile" with its...dense fur, pincers, and a fun "wait what is this?" moment. Beyond that encounter, though, I thought it took too much away from the potentially-fun alien-ness of "bison", "cats", and other life forms, as they're largely undescribed. It does save the book from needing a lot of possibly-jarring vocabulary for tech items (the "jeejaw" smartphones in Stephenson's Anathem are a cautionary example), but I'm not sure it's worth the sacrifice. The converse of the "don't call a rabbit a smeerp" rule.

That said, the main aliens here are so good. Physically, mentally, socially different than humans: check, check, and check. I take an unalloyed delight in Sophie's friendship with the Gelet; that kind of meeting and communion with strange life is, I think, a major component of science fiction and fantasy—Tolkien called it "one of the primal 'desires' that lie near the heart of Faerie"—and one that I feel like I see less often in SF these days. There's just that child-like delight, Pete's Dragon-esque, of having a secret strange friend that turns out to be real, and Anders has built the Gelet a complex world that satisfies beyond that. I love the way that the natural-vs-artificial divide is broken in the Gelet's relationship with January, and their non-human wisdom and history of more ambitious tech reminds me in equal parts of Heinlein's Martians and Lewis's Malacandrans. Their relationship and attitude towards humans doesn't fall into any neat categories you might expect—bug-eyed monsters, oppressed Space Natives, etc.—and Anders is non-bludgeon-y in reminding us that humans are the aliens here: the titular "City" is not one of the human ones. One of the best things in the novel is the way that Sophie grows through her relationship with the Gelet, becomes more herself by becoming more than herself.

Great characters, fantastic worldbuilding, and a real sense of adventure—The City in the Middle of the Night is the kind of book that got me into reading science fiction, and reading generally, when I was young. It seems inspired by, or perhaps just in the spirit of, a kind of Golden Age-y, younger-reader-targeted science fiction; I can't point to one in particular, but the whole time I was reading this I had that feeling like you're back in a place you have good memories of. At the same time, there's a maturity and depth of character here that was definitely not part of my early SF reading experience, not to mention the way it centers women's relationships. Plot complexities and trope-subversion here feel very current—I was thinking throughout this of "anti-fantasy" tendencies à la Miéville, or the kind of narrative and theme restructuring that everyone either loved or hated in The Last Jedi. Mouth's storyline has a pretty blatant Chekhov's Gun that is pretty blatantly left on the shelf, while Sophie zig-zaggedly avoids falling into the YA dystopian-revolution trope—the trajectory changes in her story are really fascinating. Some people might be turned off by it, or just find it meandering, but I really dug the way that, amidst all the speculative bits, these two people's lives don't collapse into preconceived patterns. That feels very real to me, and the way Anders builds and balances that with the fantastic elements is really impressive.

Highly recommended!

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