Review: The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders
eagle at eyrie.org
Mon Jul 27 20:51:16 PDT 2020
The City in the Middle of the Night
by Charlie Jane Anders
Copyright: February 2019
Printing: February 2020
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 meandered 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
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 Miéville'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
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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