Charlie Jane Anders’ latest science-fiction novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, is set on a faraway planet populated by humans descended from the passengers of a colony ship. Their new home, the planet January, is largely hostile to its alien inhabitants. For one thing, instead of the days and nights progressing into each other, as they do here on Earth, half of January is always in the sun, while the other half is always in the dark. The humans mostly live in two major cities built on the light side: Xiosphant, whose citizens live by a rigid set of strictly enforced rules; and Argelo, which is controlled by dangerous gangs.
But Sophie and Bianca, two young friends in Xiosphant, have joined a growing faction of student progressives at their school. When the police, wanting to squash the young revolutionaries, decide to make an example of one of them, they choose shy, working-class Sophie while privileged, sophisticated Bianca looks on in horror. Sophie is taken to the dark side of the planet and forced to fend for herself. When she falls (literally) into the path of one of January’s more frightening species of native fauna, she expects to die. But instead she discovers that the creatures are, in fact, sentient beings capable of telepathic communication. And, as it turns out, they have a whole lot to say.
Dark versus light, humans versus creatures, Xiosphant versus Argelo: This is a novel that is deeply interested in binaries and the ways in which life undermines them. “Exploring, undermining, and complicating binaries has been a major theme in my work, generally,” says Anders. She was interested in writing about a tidally locked planet because many scientists believe that if humans manage to colonize a planet, it is likely to be a tidally locked one. From that interest, she started to think about the metaphorical implications of a world of opposites and to imagine how people trying to survive in extreme conditions might come up with extreme solutions.
Anders spent over two years making notes about the world and compiling bits of the story. She started working on the book in 2013, and as time went on she saw the world she lived in grow to resemble the world she was creating. “The binaries and rigid oppositions in our society have gotten much more intense and dramatically polarized,” she says. And while there is plenty of political turmoil in the book, including the tension that happens among people who are supposedly on the same side, one of the binaries that Anders wanted to pick at was the idea of villains who are totally evil and heroes who are always good.
Take rich-girl Bianca, whom the Kirkus review calls “the worst kind of faux ‘woke’ liberal,” a description that made Anders laugh when she heard it. She agrees that there is “definitely a lot of that,” but Bianca is no one-dimensional spoiled brat.
Though Anders did plenty of revisions post-2016, much of the novel was written when she, like so many of us, assumed that 2019 wouldn’t consist of the current political landscape. Bianca in particular “means something very different now than she would have in the timeline where I originally thought the book was going to be published.” Anders’ work is heavily influenced by the writing of Doris Lessing, whose work often focused on idealistic young people getting drawn into horrible things with the best of intentions. “I think all of us are complicit in a lot of terrible stuff and try not to think about our complicity.”
Anders’ goal was to make Bianca a character whom readers would love and identify with even as she goes to a darker place toward the end of the book. “It’s desirable to identify with characters who are selfless and enlightened and do the right thing all the time,” says Anders, “but that’s not real.”
Chelsea Ennen is an editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.