Charlie Jane Anders has become something of a standby in the SFF community: a co-founder of science fiction blog io9, she won a Nebula for her second novel All the Birds in the Sky (which, unusually, gained some traction in literary circles too) and a Hugo for Our Opinions Are Correct, the podcast she co-hosts with Annalee Newitz. This year she’s written a regular column for tor.com, Never Say You Can’t Survive, on writing in the midst of societal turmoil. And her latest novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, was shortlisted for the Hugo Best Novel award.
She is, in other words, someone with her finger on the pulse of the genre; she’s well-versed in its history and has pertinent things to say about its future. Why, then, is it so hard to identify a coherent project in The City in the Middle of the Night?
Our scene is laid on January, a tidally locked planet whose day side is scorched by carcinogenic light and whose night side is too bitterly cold for humans to survive; only the narrow twilit band between day and night is habitable. There are two human cities on January: Xiosphant, whose citizens live according to a rigid day/night schedule, enforced by the authorities, that has no relation to actual conditions on January; and Argelo, where there is no consensus calendar at all and everyone just sleeps and wakes when they feel like it. Our protagonists are Sophie, a working-class citizen of Xiosphant who’s exiled from the city after taking the blame for a minor offence committed by her rich-girl crush Bianca; Mouth, the sole survivor of a wandering religious group who’s taken up with a gang of smugglers in her search to preserve her former family’s culture; and Alyssa, another smuggler and Mouth’s friend. There are, too, the Gelet, an alien race indigenous to January, who have a highly developed, utopian society based on the telepathic sharing of memories which humanity has never discovered, thanks to their vilification of the Gelet, who they call “crocodiles” and attack on sight.
The book touches on some timely themes: climate change (humanity is unknowingly disturbing the subtle climatic balance the Gelet have established on January), authoritarianism and capitalism, cultural loss, colonialism, racism and xenophobia (January society is stratified according to which compartment of the generation ship that brought settlers to the planet your ancestors travelled in – which was in turn stratified, broadly, by race). But there never emerges out of this welter of on-trend ideas a coherent statement or position, beyond “these things are bad”; this is a story built on vague, 101-level leftism, on fluffily inclusive concepts passed around on social media, memeified into simplicity. Take the link between climate change on January and the humans’ incuriosity about and hostility to the Gelet: the planet’s climate is becoming unstable because Mouse’s former religious community unknowingly harvested the fungus the Gelet had been using to control it. Now there is a real-world link between climate change and the theft of indigenous land and culture, in that they are two sides of the same capitalist coin; but it is rarely directly causal, and there is much more complexity and nuance to both issues than Anders allows. The simplification of this link is symptomatic of the novel’s overall political stance, which is based largely on platitudes that aren’t properly interrogated or analysed.
Which is not to say that I disagree with Anders’ stance on any of these issues; quite the opposite, in fact. The problem, to me, is this: if you oversimplify the issue, you oversimplify the solution too. The panacea for all of January’s problems seems to be “make friends with the Gelet”. And while that may be an excellent start, these complex, real-world issues are much too entrenched to be dealt with by good intentions alone. Anders is positioning her novel alongside a wave of new writers (N.K. Jemisin, Arkady Martine, Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee) looking to do the necessary, hard work of decolonialising SF, of looking hard at its colonialist roots and unpacking the harm it has done; but its understanding of that work is impoverished. That’s why, for me, The City in the Middle of the Night fails on its own terms.