There’s a hell of a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winner Andrew Sean Greer adorning the cover of The City in the Middle of the Night, the new novel by Nebula Award-winner Charlie Jane Anders. The book is “a breathtaking work of imagination and storytelling… making the cast for Anders as this generation’s Le Guin,” he writes. That’s high praise. The highest praise: Ursula K. Le Guin’s legacy is based not only on her reputation as one of the most influential science fiction and fantasy writers of the last century, but on the deep humanity of her work, which brilliantly explores, with fantastical trappings, transcendent truths of living within and outside of society, and in your own head.
To lift Anders up as Le Guin’s heir is not only bold, it’s also entirely reasonable. Certainly Anders is one of the most visible figures in the landscape of modern sci-fi and fantasy, and not without good reason: consider her years running beloved geek website io9, the accolades she’s received for her short fiction, the Nebula she picked up for her first adult novel, All the Birds in the Sky. Anders had made a name for herself through her work, which tends toward the thoughtful, exciting, and off-kilter, and never fails to challenge readers to dig deep within themselves to explore themes of identity and the intersection of challenges both personal and societal.
In my review, I praised All the Birds in the Sky for its voice, imagination, and boldness: “Imagine if Wes Anderson and John Hughes co-wrote and directed Interstellar, replaced the space travel with a magic school, and hired Lev Grossman to write the novelization.” Her followup, The City in the Middle of the Night, is both equally exceptional and a quantum leap forward for the author. It’s a remarkable piece of science fiction: in one sense cozy and easily recognizable as a hero’s journey, but in another, quite daring—full to the brim with the weird and the fantastical, ideas so big and thoughts and themes that crawl so deeply into your brain, it’s impossible to feel comfortable or complacent as you ingest them.
“Xiosphant is the city of dawn, but Argelo is the dusk city.” This simple snippet of prose, found midway through The City in the Middle of the Night, is ultimately illustrative and telling. The novel takes place on January, a tidally locked planet bifurcated into split halves of ultimate darkness and annihilating sunlight, with a small band of habitable equilibrium in-between. That is where the human colonists have staked their tenuous claim, and where our protagonists, Sophie and Mouth, search for meaning in their hostile world. When their paths collide in the regimented city of Xiosphant, they begin an unimaginable journey that will take them to the hedonistic city of Argelo and beyond, into the endless night.
Duality. Balance. Shifting power. Two sides to every coin. Everything in this novel seems to come in opposing pairs, and Anders wastes no effort in dissecting how these dichotomies affect people on levels personal and societal.
The two cities are light and darkness, dawn and dusk. Traveling through them alongside Sophie and Mouth is startling and revealing. Anders asks the reader to engage with both of the cities’ bright and dark sides—a bone-deep examination of the pros and cons of strict, marxist Xiosphant, where no mouth goes hungry, but time and duty are strictly enforced and the police rule with an iron fist; and free-flowing, libertarian Argelo, where time has no meaning and freedom reigns, but the gap between the haves and the have-nots is a gaping chasm.
The characters exist in duality as well. When we first meet Sophie, she is the equivalent of a scholarship student at the gymnasium, the school churning out the next batch of the Xiosphant’s elite. There, she is besotted with her classmate Bianca, a child of privilege for whom the plight of the downtrodden seems an injustice, but an abstract one. Bianca’s reformer’s idealism is driven by her intellect; Sophie’s, who grew up in poverty, feels it in her bones. Nevertheless, Sophie makes a choice early on to take the blame for a thoughtless act of protest committed by Bianca. Because Sophie doesn’t matter to those in power, her act of compassion is met with the harshest of sentences. It is this act that ultimately propels her on her world-changing journey, but she will continue to linger in Bianca’s orbit throughout the novel. Sometimes clinging to the familiar is more seductive than seeking justice for all.
Mouth, who grew up a nomad, saw her people die out, and has since made a living with a group of wandering couriers, is at odds with everything is Xiosphant, a city that operates on the idea that all life can be scheduled and controlled. Where Sophie is outwardly reserved, but driven by inner passion and empathy, Mouth is a brash and loud, hardened by a difficult life and the loss of her past. While Anders’ exploration of societal struggles might be the novel’s most enduring aspect, recalling foundational works of political SF like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, it works just as well as an action-packed bildungsroman for these women, who are similarly at odds.
Central to the characters’ journeys is the search for something new, something better. A way to fill a hole within them that has no definable shape. Fictional coming-of-age stories are often too neat to be useful, but Anders’ seems to realize there is no easy answer to self-actualization. There’s no keystone moment that will define a life, resolving the messiness of existence into a clear picture of purpose. “Eventually, though,” Mouth considers, “you could get used to something different, if you weren’t careful.” What answers exists are found, perhaps, exactly when you’re not looking for them.
“Maybe you don’t get to choose how you make peace, or what kind of peace you make,” Mouth’s fellow courier Alyssa says, challenging her. “You count yourself lucky if peace doesn’t run away from you.”
Anders is also a master of voice and description. She paints a picture of January with such a stark hand that it’ll take your breath away many times before Sophie and Mouth finish their harrowing journeys. Sophie’s encounters with the Gelet (January’s sentient native creatures, who the human settlers have long, and incorrectly, regarded as simple beasts) provide particularly emotive imagery of the beautiful, hostile planet:
We live in a great city, far from here, under the crust of the night. Cliffs of ice, deep fissures, towering structures of stone and metal, and wheels turning far beneath us, fueled by underground rivers, and furnaces hotter than the touch of the sun. At the heart of our city, tiny creatures who look like us hang in a mesh of warm, dark threads, helpless and spindly. They cry out, their tentacles and pincers still too tiny to communicate properly, but we can feel their distress, and our blood runs thin.
The way Anders uses these encounters to at once introduce Sophie and the reader to the immensely unusual landscape of January and its equally alien inhabitants, but also empathetically bind Sophie to the Gelet, is a testament to the author’s economical storytelling skill and her understanding of the tenuous nature of cultural exchange—between different societies, different races, different species.
Like Le Guin, Anders is adept at taking the ordinary—the ideas, emotions, and conflicts of daily life—and revealing them in a new light, through an alien lens. But even that strange view is really just about showing us more clearly something truly human. Her stories take place on faraway planets, in distant futures, within cultures and societies that feel like the refracted light of our own, but they are really about us. Here. Now.
The City in the Middle of the Night is about the fluidity of identity, the confines of societal expectations, about chasing new beginnings and banishing the ghosts that haunt you. It puts a human face and heart to society’s greatest problems: class inequality. Prejudice. Thoughtlessness. Environmental indifference (especially this last).
All the Birds in the Sky was a masterful story about the end of the world, and exposed many of Anders’ thoughts on love, and the way we cling to one another as we all hurtle toward the inevitable. The City in the Middle of the Night is of a piece, even as it reveals the depth of her skill—it is not a retread, but a whole new beast: less whimsical, more structurally ambitious, more disciplined by an order of magnitude, but no less heartfelt. If All The Birds in the Sky was raw potential, The City in the Middle of the Night is refined, realized.
Is Charlie Jane Anders the new Ursula K. Le Guin? No. She offers too unique a voice, and to profound a vision, to simply be someone’s heir. She is the next Charlie Jane Anders, and The City in the Middle of the Night sees her reaching new peaks. Already, it is one of 2019’s best novels.