In an op-ed appearing in The Washington Post in January, Charlie Jane Anders wrote: “Sen. Kamala D. Harris was half right in her speech launching her 2020 presidential campaign when she said we need to address climate change based on ‘science fact, not science fiction.’ The truth is, we need both.”
This belief is more than just lip service for the woman who co-founded (alongside Annalee Newitz) io9.com, a website formed with the mission to keep readers informed about the latest news in both the science and science fiction worlds.
These days, Anders is using a different medium—the speculative fiction novel—to think radically, critically, and empathetically about our present and, perhaps more importantly, all of our potential futures. The City in the Middle of the Night, out last month, is Anders’ second book following 2016’s Hugo-nominated and Nebula-winning fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky.
While All the Birds in the Skywas about a witch and a techno-geek and their attempts to save our world from imminent disaster, in The City of the Middle of the Night, disaster has already occurred for the people of Earth. (Fitting, for a time when we’ve already caused catastrophic climate change that have led to mass extinctions.) The story is set much later, generations after humans presumably fled Earth for another planet altogether: the tidally-locked January, one side of which continually faces the sun and the other the cold darkness of space.
On January, humans live in one of two declining cities (mostly) situated in the light: The rigid, oppressive Xiosphant, where people say things like “Heed the chimes, know your way,” and the more laissez faire Argelo, run by nine family-affiliated gangs, keeping the city in a perpetual cycle of violence.
Both cities have devastating class systems, hierarchies that continue to be informed by the dominant cultures of the generation ship that first brought humanity to January. In Xiosphant, we meet POV character Sophie, a young woman from the working class side of town studying at the city’s university. While there, she meets and falls for upper-class Bianca, an aspiring revolutionary who is more interested in what rebellion says about her than in how it might change the world.
In City in the Middle of the Night, Anders examines the inextricability of the personal and the political. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Sophie and Bianca’s complex and toxic dynamic, in which Bianca uses Sophie’s trauma as political capital and Sophie must learn the agony of putting up necessary personal boundaries.
Sophie spends the entire book trying to escape the glamorous gravity of Bianca. That struggle, part of Sophie’s larger journey to live with her trauma and find hope in an unjust world, is infinitely relatable—tragic, brave, and so very human. “I need to learn to belong to other people the way everyone seems to,” Sophie tries to coach herself at one point, “with one hand in the wind.”
Sophie’s path forward (and, ultimately, away from Bianca) is informed by her role as a human ambassador into January’s dark, cold night-side, and the aliens who live there—telepathic, collectively-minded creatures known by the humans as “crocodiles,” because of their vague resemblance to the Earth animal, but whom Sophie calls Gelet after one saves her life when she is cast out of Xiosphant for a minor crime she did not commit. Telepathic and connected to their native planet in ways humanity doesn’t value, the Gelet are the weirdest, and most hopepunk part of the entire novel, and directly tied to the book’s exploration of climate change.
And, yes, this world is informed by climate change—a climate change catalyzed by the arrival of humans years before. From the human’s perspctive, the weather has become more violent, with storms worsening and toxic rain falling. From the Gelet perspective, the planet’s very soul has been compromised.
“‘It’s all up for grabs,'” one single-minded Argelan character muses, giving a broad strokes example of the human perspective. “‘The sea is fished out, meteor quarries coming up empty, textile factories at half capacity. Toxic rainstorms have been trashing our crops, and the aquifers are getting polluted or drained. Shortages mean one thing: opportunity.'”
Sharing protagonist duty with Sophie is Mouth, a jaded smuggler from an otherwise extinct nomadic people called the Citizens. (One of my favorite, introductory lines from Mouth: “You only fantasize about princes when you’ve never seen one.”) Mouth, too, has experienced a great deal of trauma, and has responded to that trauma by mostly distancing herself from others. Slowly, through her relationship with Sophie, among others, she begins to see another way forward.
“The secret you shared,” Mouth says to Sophie, at one point, “it’s the most precious thing in the world. And you’re just opening it to us. I thought everyone was just selfish. I just thought, that’s the world we live in. But then you go and offer this to us. I can’t tell you what it means.”
Pop culture is rife with stories that are far too comfortable with criticizing existing hierarchical power structures without imagining alternate relationships to power in their place. In this era of grimdark storytelling, stories too often assumes that everyone has or will always have the same, narrow relationships to power: that everyone wants more than they need and that, when they get it, they will use it to accumulate more through the exploitation of others. What a monumental failure of imagination, what a cynically narrow view of humanity.
In The City of the Middle of the Night, Anders dares to imagine something different, a better way forward. This is not to say the book does not include tragedy, trauma, pain, or devastation—the repercussions of systemic violence enacted and inflicted is a continuous, intrinsically-exhausting theme. This book is, often, a downer. But it explores what healing looks like, too—both for the individual and for the community. It champions something strange, new, and much more inclusive in the place of what its human characters know. It recognizes that change is terrifying, yes, but that the alternative is far worse.
“I can’t do this thing anymore, where we live in a tiny space and pretend it’s the whole world,” Sophie tells Bianca. “People always have brand new reasons for doing the same thing over and over. I need to see something new.”
The City in the Middle of the Night is radical enough to suggest that something new could also be something better.