Friday, May 17, 2019

Microreview [book]: The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

The City in the Middle of the Night proves an intriguing canvas to tell a story of survival, contact, social issues and much more.

The planet January is a tidally locked planet of ferocious extremes. On the day side, there is heat that can boil oceans and kill life. The dark side, for humans anyway, is almost impossibly cold. The terminator line, where the world always hangs on the edge of night and day, is the place where human colonists have settled. Like the badly programmed space probes of Niven’s Known Space, the colonists have found a habitable area, rather than a completely habitable world.

On this world , the author focuses on two characters. First is Sophie, a young woman of the city of Xiosphant whose early choice to protect someone she loves leads to her exile and an amazing encounter with the indigenous inhabitants of the world that changes her life forever. And then there is Mouth, whose darker history as a itinerant traveler along the terminator only slowly emerges in the narrative. Sophie and  Mouth’s stories, and the story of the ultimate fate of a world,  is the story of Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night.

The novel’s strength is the worldbulding and the canvas on which the author places the human characters. Tidally locked planets can be tricky depict in a realistic fashion. The author has put a lot of thought, however, into how you could have a human-habitable zone between two very inhospitable extremes and the science feels solid and real, although perhaps it is a mite exaggerated for narrative effect, especially the sea where you have boiling on the day side, and implacable glaciers on the other.  . A question I had about some of the climatological consequences of a tidally locked planet, it turns out, get answered later in the novel, showing the depth of thought she has put into her work.

Anders uses the base geographical facts and builds societies, both human and alien, that make it work The cities of Xiosphant and Argela are painted in brush strokes both large and small, the tyrannical and autocratic Xiosphant contrasting with the anarchic rule-by-mob families Argela, with explorations of the varying cuisines, fashions, societal customs and social pressures. Both are very flawed societies, both are backsliding from previous highs as a planet not really suited to humans constricts and erodes their way of life. That erosion is a constant societal pressure that gives room for the protagonists not only to change their own life, but the fate of a world.

The aliens also come in for a deep dive into aliens that are far from rubber forehead aliens, or even aliens with a vastly different biology and physiology, but still act and communicate in very human ways. The “Crocodiles” (who get rechristened by Sophie as the Gelet as the novel progresses) have to build a society, right from the base of how do they communicate on such an inhospitable world where speech would be difficult if not impossible in many areas outside the Terminator zone.

And for all their alienness, they still have relatable goals,ideas, wishes, and histories as well. There is a real sense of histories to this world, not only for the human societies, but the Gelet as well. And the novel is very interested in the social history and future development of the aliens as much as it is concerned with the humans. There is a real sociological and anthropological exploration of the various societies we see here, both in their internal workings and weaknesses as well as their external relations with each other.

For me, however, I found myself far more invested in the story of Sophie than of our other point of view character, Mouth. While the characters do eventually braid their stories together, particularly in the middle and later portions of the novel, I found myself wanting to return to Sophie and her journey again and again. It is through her eyes and her experience that the rich development of cities, of geography and of course the aliens comes through the clearest. I can see why, in the tradition of “viewpoint solves everything” why the author chose and even needed to break Sophie’s point of view in order to tell the entire scope of the story. It is that I was much more invested in Sophie’s eyes and perspective. But I do note that the author is very interested in flawed characters who often make impulsive, bad decisions, and feel extremely human and real for their strengths, flaws, and character traits.

I should note that the novel begins rather tellingly and interestingly with a mention that the document is a translation into “Peak English” which is used “Across several worlds and space nodes”. It is a very subtle way to suggest where this story might be going, especially given the sliding backward paradigm that we see throughout the novel. Both of the major polities are flawed and slowly failing cities on a planet that does not reward weakness in the least. But this translator’s note implies a happy ending for the planet right off the bat. This is therefore a novel where, if one reads carefully,  the balance of the anticipation lies in the “how” rather than the “if” this world can be saved. But yet, in the reading of the novel, it is easy to put that translator’s note out of mind and wonder if the world can indeed be saved. For, like its protagonists, this world is “broken, but still good.”.

While the denouement and the ending of the book is a bit weak and doesn’t quite connect the dots and complete the “Frame” that starts the book, I walked away from the planet of January, Sophie, , and the rest of the inhabitants quite satisfied with the world that Charlie Jane has made here. Tidally locked planets provide an amazing place to set stories, the kinds of planets that might really be out there, and the author has shown that amazing stories, intriguing aliens and interesting societies might develop on such a world. 

Further, the author seems invested in telling stories about worlds having to change to survive, a theme that her All the Birds in the Sky used for Earth, as a pair of protagonists tackle the problems of Earth in completely different ways. The City in the Middle of the Night continues that tradition, although the framing and the process is very different. The tone is very much darker than the prior novel, those looking for the breeziness of the first novel are going to have expectations dashed picking up this book. Overall, though, I look forward to more exploration of a theme that is clearly an abiding concern of the author, in her subsequent novels.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for strong and interesting worldbuilding on a tidally locked planet!
+1 for intriguing and non-rubber-forehead aliens

Penalties: -1  for a somewhat imbalanced set of protagonists
-1 for a somewhat wet firecracker of an ending

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 well worth your time and attention

Reference: Anders, Charlie Jane. The City in the Middle of the Night [Tor, 2019]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.