Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night is a science-fiction novel of connection: person to person, person to animal, and person to planet. City takes place on January, a harsh, tidally locked planet of extremes that was colonized by humans long ago. Anders’s protagonist, Sophie, a young girl from humble beginnings, takes the blame for a crime committed by her rich, spoiled roommate, Bianca, and gets kicked out of their prestigious school. The police take Sophie to the edge of their city, Xiosphant, and leave her to die, but she’s rescued by what the Xiosphanti call a crocodile—though this creature has tentacles, powerful legs, and a giant, round mouth. Rather than trying to kill the crocodile, Sophie submits to it, and they bond physically, which allows her to see from the creature’s perspective and learn that crocodiles are sophisticated beings with their own city, technology, and complex history.
Somehow I can see in the dark now, except that I realize I’m not seeing at all. I’m using alien senses, and my mind is turning them into sight and sound.
I tear through the landscape so fast the wind can’t keep up. A sudden storm could rip me apart, the tundra could swallow me, but I don’t even care. My back legs push against the ground and the ice surrenders, while my smaller front legs rip into the slick surface, propelling me even faster and keeping my balance. I’m not running—this is something much better. I’ve never felt so much power in my body, and so many sensations flood into the ends of my two great tentacles as they taste the wind around me.
I want to laugh, and then I turn and see that four other crocodiles are running alongside me, grasping some spiky devices in their tentacles and guiding a sled full of some kind of precious metal. I feel a surge of pride, safety, happiness that they’re with me, and we’re going home.
Then we reach it: a huge structure in the shape of a rose with all its petals spread, a circle surrounded by elaborate crisscrossing arch shapes. Only the very top pokes above the surface, and the rest extends far below the ice, but still its beauty almost stops my heart. A glimmering city, many times larger than Xiosphant, that no human eyes have ever seen.
The second narrator of City is a former Citizen named Mouth, who endeavors to reclaim her own culture while also helping Sophie, and later Bianca, fight a revolution. City is focused on issues of class and the division we carry on from previous generations. As these young revolutionaries fight zealously for a better world, they try to come to terms with their personal histories, jealousies, and desires. In the end, as Anders writes, “you don’t just walk away from the place that made you.”
Alta caught up with Anders via email to discuss The City in the Middle of the Night, which was nominated for a 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Read her new short story “The Turnaround” in Alta, Summer 2020.
What central question does your work ask?
If you look at everything I’ve written, including the straight-up “realist” fiction as well as the speculative fiction, the common thread is people trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. I think the theme of identity keeps coming up—as it relates to my trans and queer identities but also in other ways. I’m interested in people who are trying to get to the truth of who they really are and the power of claiming your real identity. As the world around us has gotten more obviously extreme, and the collapse of the old 20th-century world order seems more and more inevitable, the question of “Who am I?” has definitely taken on a different resonance. Now it’s more like “Who am I in a world of ecological collapse and white supremacist extremism?” What does it mean to be a good person during horrible, unjust times?
What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
I listen to a ton of music, especially old-school funk/R&B but including lots of other genres. I strongly prefer to listen to music while I write, and I find that the music I’m listening to definitely seeps into my writing. I feel like music helps me to access my emotions but also conjure a particular mood. I also love to walk around San Francisco and look at all the amazing street art paired with the gorgeous architecture, and I feel like that visual art helps to make my writing more vivid. And finally, I watch a lot of television and listen to a fair number of podcasts, which I think definitely influence how I think about storytelling.
These days, what music are you listening to while you write?
I am currently listening to all of George Clinton’s solo albums, from Computer Games onward. There is literally nothing like Parliament-Funkadelic and associated groups to keep the neurons firing.
What obsessions, coincidences, or connections made it into The City in the Middle of the Night?
I started writing that book sometime in 2013 or early 2014 and was finishing it and revising it in 2017 and early 2018. And the horrors of 2017 definitely seeped into the book, in a big way—the theme of identity I mentioned above was always in there, and so was the dark backstory about an attempted genocide happening on the voyage from Earth to the new world. But as I revised, the terrible history of what had happened on the way to the planet January took on more importance as part of Sophie’s quest to discover who she is and who she wants to be. Her identity was bound up with acknowledging the horrors and abuses of the past, in a way that made more sense in 2017 than it might have in 2015. But I think that was always going to be in there in some fashion.
What kind of writing do you think will come out of this moment in history?
I think there will probably be a bunch of quarantine novels and books about isolation generally—and most of them will probably be pretty bad, but there might be some real gems in there. I think the Trump era is going to leave us with a lot of comic novels as well as some great escapist fiction, but also some attempts to grapple with the legacy of white supremacy and predatory capitalism. It’ll be both escapism and serious attempts, and some works that blend the two. I also think it’s an open question as to whether we’ll still have bookstores and any kind of diversity of publishing ventures after this—if we want to be reading the next great novel in a few years, we really need to be supporting our local bookstores right now.
What’s on your to-be-read list?
Currently I’m massively enjoying Walking the Clouds, an anthology of Indigenous speculative fiction. Next up on my TBR are The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi and Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi.
Give us the elevator pitch for The City in the Middle of the Night.
A teenage girl gets banished into eternal darkness but survives by learning to make friends with the creatures who live in the dark.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Sara Borjas for Alta Asks.
- By Charlie Jane Anders
- Tor Books, 368 pages, $26.99