A Politics of Synthesis: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Ecological disaster and social collapse loom on the horizon for the inhabitants of January, human descendants of a generation ship whose advanced technologies have long since failed. Political and economic tensions ride high in both of the planet’s most populous cities, separated by a deadly tract of wilderness and segregated by past conflicts, while trouble also brews outside human habitation in the massive section of the planet that exists in total darkness.

Sophie, a Xiosphanti student from the impoverished end of town attending an upper class school, is drawn into a young activist circle by her outgoing wealthy roommate with drastic consequences leading to a brutal near-death experience. However, Sophie’s chance rescue by one of the alien inhabitants of the Night is the catalyst for a series of conflicts both grand and intimate in scale that offer the start of an answer to the crises facing her world.

Some spoilers.

After reading around the first hundred pages of The City in the Middle of the Night, I had to take a delighted pause to consider the concept of lineages: familial, political, literary. At that point, the beginning of “part three,” one of the lineages of the novel itself had become quite clear. I surely won’t be the first or last to point out the conversation Anders’ novel is joining in the loose genre of anthropological science fiction, and more specifically its call-and-response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, but the initial realization thrilled me to the bone. From the starting page—which includes a translator’s note critiquing an insistence by some historians that the planet of January’s intense climate was the cause for certain evolutions of human biology—there are purposeful echoes.

Such as: the planet’s harsh climate is a landscape frozen between eternal black-night winter and scorching, skin-boiling summer; civilization consists primarily of two cities separated politically and geographically with differing dystopic approaches to governance; the technologies that allowed humans to come to the planet have long since been lost. The novel’s plot features a trek across bleak glacier-ice between the two cities that builds and breaks relational bonds. Our narrators are both outsider-observers commenting on social intricacies, failures, and expectations. However, where Le Guin’s novel concerned itself primarily with arguments surrounding gender and reproduction, Anders focuses on political organizing—though of course race, gender, and sexuality are inextricably connected to politics here as well.

Any variant of sociological sf is, by its core nature, political. However, Anders centers actual politics with deliberate efficacy in The City in the Middle of the Night. The question of how to exist well together, and moreover how to create a just, functional society, is the guiding concern of the novel. And, in fiction as in life, there are no simple answers. The paired cities of Xiosphant and Argelo—one conservatively authoritarian and the other permissively libertarian—are both failed societies in their own right, shaped through class and hierarchy into unique but eminently recognizable nightmares. The truism of “utopia and dystopia are identical sides of the same coin, depending on your perspective” is at work in full. There are also other social groups, such as Mouth’s people, a nomadic band who were destroyed to the last in a sudden traveling cataclysm. A swamp-living, cloistered community are also mentioned, as well as pirates and other outsiders.

Then there are the Gelet, the original inhabitants of the planet that the humans treat as strange animals. The Gelet expand the typical anthropological frame by introducing a purely nonhuman perspective on communal organization that destabilizes the hierarchies of the human cities. The Gelet are gender-homogeneous and share memories/knowledge via a form of organic psychic bonding, so their social order is distributed and perpetually accessible from the first stories of the culture up through the present moment via shared visions. But even this naked communality isn’t presented as a simplistic ideal—for example, Anders explores the trauma of disability and mental illness within the confines of their necessarily-intimate society. Sophie’s willingness to bond first with the Gelet she calls Rose and then with others, her slow and continual attempts to bridge the gap between their species, is what opens the door for evolution of her body into something between human and Gelet. Synthesis and evolution rather than supremacy; that’s one of the answers Anders offers to social issues on January—a sort of dialectical approach to problem-solving.

A related core point that Anders returns to, again and again, is the value of lineages/histories in politics and political organizing. She approaches it from multiple angles via our two narrators, Sophie and Mouth, as well as through their relationships to others. For example, the generation ship that initially colonized January is just one of the lineages in conversation: its compartments had been separated by old-Earth nations, demarcated along lines of ethnicity, wealth, and technological advancement. Xiosphant discourages open relation to this past and Argelo emphasizes it, but neither is free of hierarchies echoing across hundreds of years. Sophie, during her time in Argelo, connects for the first time to her ancestral lineage and the wrongs that were done on the ship then reinforced in the construction of society planetside, because nothing exists in a vacuum, especially not power. The conceptual framework that emerges from these narrative threads is one that prioritizes learning from the past without mythologizing it—retaining cultural knowledge while expanding into fresh territories that incorporate other peoples’ (or aliens’) learned experience to evolve a syncretic, holistic structure of social order. The refusal of a simple solution, a direct reducible answer, is an answer.

Sophie’s schoolfriend and object of adoration, Bianca, provides a counterpoint in developing this thematic argument. She’s a hip socialite, a wealthy and privileged woman dabbling with the trappings of progressive activism but unwilling to examine her own privilege or refusal to engage with other people’s experiences. The consequences of her actions have no bearing on her, particularly regarding the people she harms in her willful ignorance or is willing to purposefully exploit. There is a moment, one of the few in which Sophie is truly livid with her, that drives this home: she drops the story of Sophie’s assault and attempted extrajudicial execution by the police of Xiosphant as a fun party story, a thrilling tale, rather than a horrific ordeal that left her friend with serious post-traumatic stress. However, even after Bianca agrees not to use Sophie’s story for her own social capital, she continues to misstep again and again—until she ultimately reveals the rotten core of her performative activism in the climactic chapters of the novel. It’s also notable that Bianca insists on discarding the past as useless information, ‘letting bygones be bygones’ in a sense while refusing context or complexity; histories of oppression and activism do not inform her bargain-bin political theory.

There is also a brutal relatability in Sophie’s willingness to let Bianca have another chance, and another, and another. The desire to allow someone you love to prove themselves better, capable of learning, can be poison, and until the moment you break you haven’t yet broken away. It takes Bianca’s ultimate rejection, not just of Sophie’s affection but of her own supposed political ideology, for Sophie to have the revelation that Bianca has no interest in changing or developing past her shallow, self-interested echo chamber of privilege. The realistic emotional depth that drives these relationships is perhaps the best part of the novel, the thing that gives it not just cleverness but life. Sophie and Bianca, Mouth and Alyssa, Sophie and Hernan and Jeremy, Sophie and Mouth and the Gelet; then worse, like Bianca and Dash, or the network of criminal families that runs Argelo.

I’ll posit that as another of the thematic threads a reader can pull from this tapestry of a book: individual relationships reflect and effect the social order from the ground up. While Sophie’s arc is political as much as it is personal, Mouth’s is the reverse—more about giving up the idealized version of cultural history that provides “all the answers” to social questions in favor of building current relationships, listening to current voices, and forming new bonds despite the trauma of past loss. It’s a little bit about doing the real work, not just reading the right texts. Watching Mouth develop a relationship with Alyssa that is functional, despite initial difficulties, is intensely rewarding and bears fruit in terms of Mouth’s ability to be trustworthy for Sophie as well down the line. After all, the personal is the political is the personal. It’s an old adage but Anders gives it fresh, thoughtful vitality.

The anthropological frame that brackets the novel can’t be disregarded in sketching its arguments, either. We know, as readers, that the text is framed as a translated/constructed “historical” document calling across time—it’s the story of Mouth and Sophie from so far past their moment that their existence is close to mythic. The frame allows us to appreciate the implication that large scale change starts from a small seed and a communal effort to grow it. In this case, the spark ignites the moment one human touched her mind to that of the distinctly nonhuman Gelet and was willing to understand, to adapt to the future and remember the past simultaneously. The single-page introduction changes the entire scope of the text. Though it ends on a wide-open note, we know that Sophie must have succeeded in spreading her message and that the collapsing human societies of January did eventually evolve alongside the Gelet. Presumably, the ecological disaster wrought by humans in their ignorance of the landscape and the Gelet’s management of it was also addressed or resolved, if their united society survived.

As an sf novel within a lineage of other sf novels doing sociological critique, asking big questions and venturing a handful of possible answers, Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night is an impressive piece of work that stands solid on its own but grows in scope and effect when taken as part of a conversation on the medium. It is ultimately the kind of didactic, intelligent, critical fiction that interrogates the boundaries of our current moment through broad-scope questions of what if, why, how—illustrating our failures, our pitfalls, and our potential for change via alien perspectives. There is much, much more I’d like to explore about the novel that isn’t even mentioned here, but overall, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

The City in the Middle of the Night is available from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt here.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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