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

I am grateful to Titan for sending me an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Titan

Published – Out Now

Price - £14.99 Hardcover

‘If you control out sleep, then you control our dreams…And from there, it’s easy to control our entire lives.’

January is a dying planet – divided between a permanently frozen darkness on one side, and blazing endless sunshine on the other. Humanity clings to life, spread across two archaic cities built in the sliver of habitable dusk.

But life inside the cities is just as a dangerous as the unhabitable wastelands outside. Sophie, a student and reluctant revolutionary, is supposed to be dead, after being exiled into the night. Saved only by forming an unusual bond with the enigmatic beasts who roam the ice, Sophie vows to stay hidden from the world, hoping she can heal.

But fate has other plans – and Sophie’s ensuing odyssey and the ragtag family she finds will change the entire world.

In this rather painful period of the 21st century there has been debate as to what form science fiction will next take and how will it explore today’s churning battles of ideas. In this fantastic novel from Charlie Jane Anders I think we have one of those novels that hold; as the best SF always does, a mirror to humanity to show us what we are and what we can be- both for good and for ill. It’s a haunting tale of revolution, heartbreak and selfishness as well as the capacity to change and understand one another.

The novel initially centres on the major city of Xiosphant and two rebellious teenage students Bianca and Sophie. On a planet where you sit eternally between day and night there is no turn of the day and the founders of the city have chosen strict structures of Circadianism – everyone must live, work, pay and sleep according to their allocated shifts and wages.  There is no deviation accepted be it sexuality, wanting a hobby or dreaming of a better way of life. Bianca the shining bright socialite from the wealthier side of the city and Sophie the more timid but thoughtful from the poorer ‘dark side of town’ have bonded over the years and shares jokes but also thoughts about what is wrong with society.  However, Bianca makes an error attracting the eye of the security forces and Sophie decides to take the blame.  However, this time the security forces want to make an example of the rebels and in a terrifying scene they plunge her into the night side of the planet to quickly freeze to death.

Sophie however in her last moments meets a ‘crocodile’ (the large apparently savage wild beasts from the night side of the planet with no heads but pincers that can crush someone in one snap) and they touch and form a mental bond. The creature (later known as one of the Gelet) reveals to Sophie that the Gelet are a far more advanced civilisation that the original colonists who formed Sophie’s world completely ignored. Sophie returns to Xiosphant and initially wants to hide in the sideways of the city. While this goes on Bianca has become angrier with the world that took away her friend and has moved into supporting the more violent revolutionaries also enlisting the support of Mouse one of the Resourceful Couriers; a team of roguish wanderers who specialise in moving and ‘liberating’ property. Mouse though has her own agenda and Bianca feels compelled to reveal herself to warm Sophie.  Suddenly all three though find themselves on the run and a trip into January’s deadlier lands awaits them.

There follows an exploration of this trio’s intense eternally shifting relationship; the goals of the mysterious Gelet and the often-downright inhuman way of life that January’s colonists have now accepted as the new normal. For me this was a novel very much about fear and what it can do to people – not in the sense of gut-clenching terror but more people fearing the unknown be it telling someone how you feel about them; the fear of letting go of the past and the fear of accepting the future. Sophie and Bianca struggle to fully share their thoughts and feelings which ultimately turns their relationship from friendship to questioning each other’s motives. Mouse who was known for being a reckless rogue has decided to hold desperately to a remnant of her own people even if this means lying to everyone and placing them in danger and worst of all the humans of Xiosphant and later their sister city Argelo. 

In these two cities we have two extremes; one that has restricted people to imposed order in every way of life (by force) and the other where chaos reigns supreme so much so that the inhabitants would rather fight their enemies in acid rain rather than run for cover – let alone solve their own problems. Its very clear the way of life for the humans is in decline – worsening supplies, increasing climate problems and yet they keep falling back into petty feuds and grasping for power to serve their own personal needs/vendettas rather than their planets. Its not hard to see a parallel with our own world hurtling for destruction but seemingly eternally focused on the petty issues and instead attempting to put a wall up to save us seeing what is out there.

I was a big fan of Ander’s All the Birds in the Sky; for me it was a frenetic novel merging science fiction and fantasy together with a tonne of ideas thrown together at once.  This novel however is much more measured and thoughtful.  In some ways it presents a very classic SF format of colonists on a far-off world meeting a truly alien intelligent being for the first time, but it feels much more a novel of the 21st century that the 1950’s. The pace I find is thoughtful and some may find that off-putting.  But I think that’s a deliberate choice. In Xiosphant we are introduced to the idea of a coffee shop for Timefulness – that if people are so regimented by shifts and allotted times to live and sleep that they need to find an outlet and a place to take themselves out of the constant moment. Our main trio are eventually left to their own devices rather than the usual overarching plot of a quest and its in these moments that Sophie, Bianca and Mouse must work out who they are and what they want from each other. Their choices may not always be the best, but they are for good or ill very human ones.

As such the book feels bittersweet and more a sad reflection on human nature rather than extolling our virtues and the Gelet who we realise are perhaps the most advanced civilisation watch and potentially judge us from the dark…Overall if you enjoy a low key but thoughtful and unique science fiction then I would thoroughly recommend this novel to you and it has left a haunting impression many hours after I closed the pages.