"A girl is banished into permanent darkness and she survives by learning to communicate with the creatures that live there in the dark" is how Charlie Jane Anders describes the opening of her newest novel, The City in the Middle of the Night.
Set 1,200 years in the future on a tidally locked planet far from our own, Anders's book skews far closer to sci-fi than her previous novel, All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula Award in 2017 for best novel. But though the places and times are different, Anders still excavates the questions surrounding what it means to be human.
When Sophie is cast into the freezing darkness outside the city in which she has grown up, she doesn’t expect to survive. Nor does she expect to connect with an indigenous life form that humans refer to as Crocodiles due to their large mouths and tough carapace, but whom Sophie renames the Gelet. One of the Gelet saves Sophie and shares memories with her, launching her on a winding journey that explores two very different human cities, struggles with the darkest depths of friendship and loyalty and power, and challenges the definition of humanity.
Anders enjoyed creating the Gelet, though they "definitely went through some evolution before I got to the creatures the way they are now…. The main thing was trying to come up with something that weren't alien creatures I'd seen before or weren't your standard humanoid alien." The Gelet communicate telepathically when they touch each other or humans with their tentacles, and sharing dreams, visions of the future, and memories of the past are what defines the community of the Gelet—who are far more advanced than the humans on the planet believe.
And those humans on their new home planet are the focus of most of the action in The City in the Middle of the Night. "It became apparent from talking to astronomers and others that if we do discover another planet that humans can live on, it's probably an exoplanet [a planet outside our solar system]. And it's probably going to be tidally locked." Living on a tidally locked planet means not only altering the daily processes we take for granted on our spinning planet—like figuring out when to wake up and when to fall asleep—but also keeping to a thin, barely habitable strip of twilight between the half of the planet fixed in permanent toxic daylight and the half fixed in freezing darkness.
Anders thinks a lot about what it means to be human, on scales both large and small. "If you met someone from 1,200 years ago, what they would think of the human species in in the 21st century? Would they consider us still human according to their ideas of humanity?" While our current definition about humanity might be rigid, Anders believes that we should consider it to be more fluid. "I think part of what makes us human is that we're constantly redefining humanity." And redefining ourselves—our humanity—is not a bad thing at all. "This is something that I kind of steal shamelessly from Octavia Butler, but I think that humanity isn't necessarily going to have a future unless we leave behind some of our more retrograde attitudes about hierarchy and domination and trying to create artificial distinctions between different types of humans and trying to create oppressive structures. I think that we have to get past that, or we're not going to survive."
While the question of humanity—what is it and who defines it—lingers on every page, it's the inter-human relationships that sucks the reader into The City in the Middle of the Night. Sophie; her best friend, Bianca; a young woman named Mouth, and a band of scrappy smugglers called Resourceful Couriers are forced to flee Sophie and Bianca's city for the only other city on the planet, where even more trouble awaits them. Bianca is unable or unwilling to recognize the depths of Sophie's feelings for her, Sophie doesn't trust Mouth, who has betrayed Bianca, and Mouth struggles with reconciling her nomadic upbringing with her need for friendship and loyalty.
Says Anders, "I'm really interested in complicated women and complicated relationships between women." She adds, "I like to have somewhat messed up emotional stuff in my stories. It makes it easier for me to connect with the characters, and it makes it more believable to me."
While some have asked if The City in the Middle of the Night will have a sequel novel, Anders has no current plans for one. "I definitely I love this world and I'm super interested in what comes next, but if I was going to write about this world again, I might write a couple of short stories that include the characters from this novel."
Filling her plate now is a trilogy of young adult novels that she's sold to Tor, who also published The City in the Middle of the Night. Says Anders, who has only written standalone novels so far, "Trilogies are hard!" In these novels, a teenage girl on Earth discovers that she's connected to a longtime war in space. She assembles a group of fellow teens to get on a spaceship and join the fight. "I describe it as people having feelings in the middle of space battles," Anders laughs.
The Amazon Books editors chose both All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night as Best Books of the Month. We can't wait to get our hands on Anders's next book—feelings, space battles, and all.
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