“Show, don’t tell”. It’s a famous narrative technique, and one Charlie Jane Anders fully embraces in her latest novel The City in the Middle of the Night. This description doesn’t just apply to the writing style however, it also is a central tenet of this remarkable story.
The novel starts with the protaganist Sophie illegally talking after shutters-down with her dorm-mate Bianca at the Gymnasium (aka university), with her own internal self-descriptions showing her awkward personality, filled with self-doubt and a passionate admiration for her friend. With these flashes of conversation, Anders quickly establishes a strong sense of the local culture, Xiosphant is a city reacting to the lack of a day-night cycle on tidally-locked January by rigidly enforcing strictly allotted sleeping times and violently valuing time and structure to ensure its survival. The truly totalitarian nature is shown when the police burst in on their Progressive Students Union meeting, Sophie taking Bianca’s stolen food dollars to save her future, and letting them arrest her, dragging her to execution by being pushed off a mountain into the frozen night.
Left for dead on the mountainside there she meets a “crocodile”, the name humans first gave to the tentacled inhabitants of January upon arrival. As she reaches to fight, a moment of curiosity and confusion overwhelms the main protaganist, she lets the creature envelop her with its tentacles and mouth and receives a vivid transfer of experience and memory, capturing an image of a remarkable glimmering city in the frozen night. The crocodile keeps her warm, and carries her to safety, leaving her free to re-enter her home and find refuge. As she regains warmth and feeling however, the true pain of what happens to her hits, with Anders providing a truly powerful description of trauma and survival, punctuated at the end with a donated memory “I was a crocodile, running across the tundra with all of my friends.”, a dichotomy of unique experiences that defines Sophie through the rest of the story.
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Leaving us to ponder this, Anders swiftly changes tack, introducing us to another character’s perspective, that of Mouth, a bitter member of the Resourceful Couriers, a team that travels across the treacherous terrain to trade between Xiosphant and the other major city on this side of January, Argelo. Unfortunately, this also stalls the book, the introduction to Mouth is less compelling, and the frequent shifts to alternate between Mouth and Sophie constantly break any momentum that starts to develop. This stuttered pace continues for an achingly long time, before the characters finally leave Xiosphant, and start a journey across January.
Throughout The City in the Middle of the Night, we are repeatedly offered brilliant imagery of January and the cultures that have developed there since humanity arrived. The contrast between Xiosphant and Argelo is compelling. The fractured images we get of Mouth’s lost nomad culture The Citizens are intriguing. Humanity’s struggles with war, peace, abuse, trauma, survival, structure, anarchy, revolution, and totalitarian stability are all showcased here. The story is strong and engaging, the descriptions and metaphors powerful, but while the portrayal of the characters’ complex emotions is fantastic, they themselves aren’t engaging.
Sophie and Mouth provided an interesting contrast of perspectives of tied events, their struggles were simultaneously grandiose and grounded, their impulses, ambitions, and reactions very human and real. This can be jarring however, every flaw is realised by the protagonists, characters are compelled to make the same mistakes, while the only positive descriptions we see are tainted by idolisation from the beholder. We’re given two contrasting perspectives over a group of characters and personalities that draw focus to the dark flaws of humanity and the pains they can never truly escape, yet despite the the fact that the characters all elicit sympathy, they fail to become truly sympathetic characters.
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This is paralleled intriguingly by the crocodiles, or Gelet as they’re later renamed, as we discover more about their pseudo-hivemind, remarkable management of January’s ecosystem, and reactions to humanity’s arrival on their planet. Their memory-sharing method of communication epitomises the idea of “show, don’t tell”, with its fundamentally honesty contrasting with humanity’s disturbing revisions of history and the flawed societies that result.
The City in the Middle of the Night has all of the traits of the best of science fiction. Anders successfully combines a fascinating spark of imagination with grounded characters that fit into a distinct and unique world, while providing powerful allegories about our own society. While the story struggles for a period, it’s because the protagonists aren’t quite as compelling as the fascinating world whose periphery they inhabit.
The City in the Middle of Night is out now from Titan Books.