Nostalgia really comes from the most unexpected places. As a teenager, I played this one computer game about space exploration, warring factions from earth, and a creepy xenofungus. Yes, I’m talking about Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri – hours of fun. It was immersible and mysterious and much like Charlie Jane Anders’s new novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, which also raises questions of survivalism, environmental harmony, and true exploration. There’s a lady connected to a bunch of wigglies, but they’re tentacles not mind worms. Indeed the resemblance between the computer game, with the secondary plot from The Book of the Planet, and The City, with it’s searing emotions, can be described as cursory. The City rides on familiar alien contact and planet colonizing themes to present a strange and beautiful new story.
The best science fiction novels feature a cast full of misfits, and The City delivers a planetful. One of the main cities on planet January, Xiosphant, has a rigid work and sleep schedule and totalitarian monarchy, yet every Xiosphanti has some side hustle going, trying to get ahead, and nobody really fits in. Flip it over to Argelo, with its semi-anarchic political system and a ruling class that closely resembles organized crime, and still nobody fits in. Xiosphanti students Sophie and Bianca want to overthrow the ruling class simply out of youthful rebellion, but a stupid prank of Bianca’s results in Sophie being left to die on the frozen wastes of January’s night. January has a night side and a day side, and people only live on the day side, but there’s still dangers to be had from all the unpredictable weather between Xiosphant and Argelo. This makes it difficult for cool space smugglers, like beta couple Mouth and Alyssa, to move goods in between the two cities. But, Sophie, out in the the middle of the wilderness, does not have cool space smuggler skills and needs to be saved by aliens.. These aliens, the Gelet, show her (via telepathy) a third city on the dark side of the planet.
As could be expected from a tale of two (or three) cities, The City sees a lot of duality between its couples, whose relationships never really get a formal title. Sure, Mouth and Alyssa share a bed regularly, but that’s a survival strategy in the freezing temperatures of January. Sex never gets described, so it’s left up to the imagination, but a similar ambiguity certainly confuses Sophie to very core. Sophie loves Bianca, who claims to love Sophie back, but repeatedly abuses that trust time and time again. Sophie plays sucker to Bianca’s tricks their entire relationship, but thanks to dual narration between her and Mouth, we never get a one-sided version which completely victimizes Sophie. No Mary Sues here whatsoever, including Mouth, whose cowardice and selfishness comes across every time she skips out on one of the other characters, blindly chasing after the family that abandoned her. It becomes apparent that Mouth and Alyssa only survive through canniness and knowing when to run instead of fight, at which they both excel.
Sophie’s particular talents involve empathy and communication with the Gelet, whom she sees as actual sentient beings and not a strange species of animal. Bianca does not agree, to a degree that borders on absurdity – at one point, the Gelet come en masse and carry Sophie, Bianca, Mouth, and Alyssa to Argelo, saving their lives. While Sophie’s fixation on Bianca certainly doesn’t get a positive treatment, Bianca’s cruel words and general bratty attitude (brattitude!) stretch the limits of even the most unrequited love. By contrast, Mouth and Alyssa banter like the older, more mature friends they are, before heading out on yet another slog out in the wasteland. The amount of time taken up by dangerous journeys across harsh landscapes weighs its toll on the pace on the novel. For a book about cities, so much of the worldbuilding focuses on geography, politics, and science, but it leaves fields like design and architecture feeling a little left out.
However, the science behind living on a tidally locked planet leaks into every crevice of this book. The four major characters in this book do what they must to survive, including betraying one another time and time again, despite constant declarations of love. These complicated relationships stick with the reader well after the story’s over, but they really shine when set up against the bizarre experience of trying to forge a new life on another planet.
Three out of five stars.
Favorite quote: “You wrap yourself in layers of padding and packing tape, like a parcel, and run through the burning rain as if you could dodge the droplets.”