The best science fiction, at its core, tells the most human stories, even if those stories are about aliens, robots or far-off galaxies. Amidst the battles for planet-wide dominance or species survival are more mundane—and relatable—moments that provide the reader with entry points to connect with the characters. Science fiction can be an enjoyable escape from reality, but without commenting on life back down here on earth, that escape will ring hollow.
There’s a very human story at the center of Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel, The City in the Middle of the Night. Set in the distant future on the long-ago colonized planet of January, the tale is as much about toxic relationships, blinding love and otherness as it is the danger facing all the planet’s inhabitants.
Sophie lives on a planet that doesn’t spin. Day takes the full brunt of a blazing star, and night is a frozen wasteland, leaving a thin band of dusk where humans have settled. Her city of Xiosphant compensates for the lack of a natural rhythm by legislating one. Time demands conformity as the city wakes and sleeps as one, and that conformity spills over into a suspicion of anything that deviates from the norm. Sophie happens to be extraordinary—shy, generous, brave and kind. She bristles at the injustice around her, even before she admits to herself that her feelings for her roommate Bianca venture into forbidden territory.
When Sophie makes a split-second decision to take the blame for Bianca’s petty crime, she’s taken to the edge of night and left for dead. This is the catalyst for a chain of events that involves the planet’s sentient residents, the Gelet, reaching out to warn of impending climate change, revolutionaries plotting to overthrow Xiophant and all of the primary characters faced with difficult choices and even opposing sides as the book progresses.
On one level, Anders’ novel deals with macro questions humanity is facing right now, from the need for unity in the face of impending environmental catastrophe to gender and sexual equality to activism and political reform.
But deeper than that are the fractious and ambiguous relationships of two sets of women—Sophie and Bianca, and the smugglers Mouth and Alyssa. Sophie and Bianca idolize each other, but once separated, they both have trouble seeing past their idealized visions to actually connect. Sophie’s feelings are complicated by her unacknowledged queerness, yet another aspect that sets her apart from a society that has already cast her off.
Mouth, the other POV character, has her own ghosts to deal with: the loss of the society of wandering nomads who raised her and her inability to settle anywhere on an increasingly hostile planet. It’s these stories of inner and inter-relational conflict that give a depth to an otherwise original and gripping story of an alien world.
Anders, who co-founded a magazine titled other before becoming the Nebula Award-winning novelist of All the Birds in the Sky, has given us an original protagonist in the awkward and open Sophie, who feels an otherness to her core. Her love for Bianca is as pure as it is misplaced. Readers will recognize their own Biancas in this story, as well as their own personal tragedies.
The City in the Middle of the Night may be set light-years away, but it’s likely to hit too close to home.