Author Charlie Jane Anders' new sci-fi novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, is poised to redefine your associations with the month of January, as it's been branded anew as a distant planet perched on the precipice of glaring daylight and perpetual night. It arrives on February 12 from Tor Books and has already garnered enthusiastic early reviews.
Anders is well known as the co-founder (with Annalee Newitz and others) and editor-in-chief of the science and sci-fi blog io9, a position she held until venturing forth as a full-time writer in 2016 and scoring universal accolades for her first novel, All the Birds in the Sky. The breakthrough book earned her a coveted Nebula Award for Best Novel of 2017, and now she's returned to the literary realm with another bracing tale of a far-future world and its strange entanglements of humans, creatures, and politics.
In The City in the Middle of the Night we're thrust into the harsh destination of January, a perishing planet forever divided between the territories of frigid darkness on one side and bright scorching sunshine on the other. Within this hostile duality, Humanity's existence hangs in a fragile balance within a pair of ancient cities built in the narrow slice of habitable twilight, sheltered from the deadly wastelands outside.
Its main protagonist, Sophie, is a student and half-hearted revolutionary, who was supposed to have perished after being exiled into the enveloping night. She's saved by forming a strange and unexpected connection with the mysterious beasts that prowl the vast ice sheets, Her ultimate fate and profound odyssey prove to have the power to alter life on January forever.
SYFY WIRE spoke to Anders on her compelling new novel to learn about the pressures of this sophomore effort, the complex world-building required, the importance of a vivid cover design, and inspiring tips on breaking in as a new science fiction writer.
Can you take us on a quick tour of your new book's unusual plot?
It's about a girl who gets banished into eternal darkness who learns to survive by communicating with the creatures who live there in the dark. It's set on a planet that's tidally locked so there's a pitch-black night side and a blazingly hot day side. Humans are living between those two sides in the twilight area. One character named Sophie gets into some political hot water and gets banished to the night side and ends up being important to the future of the human race on this planet. It's about trying to figure out what it means to be human and live in a place that's so different, where all the things we take for granted on Earth are not there.
How was this book different than writing All the Birds in the Sky?
I started working on City in the Middle of the Night before we even sold that first book. I was sitting there in 2014 thinking that All The Birds in the Sky would totally tank because it's such a weird book. It's kind of whimsical and silly and broke a lot of rules for sci-fi fantasy novels. I wanted to prove that I could do something different to follow it up and hope people who liked that book also love this new one. There's less humor in City in the Middle of the Night, and it's got a lot of complicated world-building and intense themes about trauma.
How did you approach the world-building, and what were some of your inspirations?
I read a lot about tidally locked planets and also went to Reykjavik in Iceland, where they have the 24-hour day at certain points of the year. I also talked to a friend who lived at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. But mostly I tried to imagine what it would be like living someplace where you can walk in one direction and hit endless darkness, and in the other direction and run into harsh sunlight, living between those two extremes. Then there's the alien civilization, the Gelets, who live in the middle of the night. I spent tons of time imagining how they function without the same senses that humans have, and that was an interesting fun challenge.
What are your thoughts on the cover design and how it was conceived?
We really lucked out on the cover of All the Birds in the Sky, which was so beautiful and vivid. I feel like a good book cover does introduce people to the book and arouses curiosity. We went back and forth about City in the Middle of the Night. There were a lot of different cityscape concepts posed. The color scheme we came up with jumps out at you, and that was my main concern.
What advice do you offer to aspiring science fiction writers?
Keep writing and don't be discouraged by rejections. I got a thousand rejections on my fiction before I got anywhere as a writer. Rejections are part of the job, and you have to keep plugging away and trying to improve. Make it a communal activity. Join a writing group. Try to get to open mikes to read your work out loud to an audience. That's good for shaping your voice and seeing what works and what doesn't in real time. Maybe start a podcast where you read your fiction and talk about it. Anything to interact with people. And when you read, read broadly. Not just the genre you want to write in. Romance. Mystery. Literary fiction. It's all helpful to hone your sense of story.
Now absorb and enjoy our exclusive chapter excerpt from The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, Tor Books, 2019.
"I found this place," Bianca says, "where they make this drink. You will never want to drink gin-and-milk again." As if making me hate gin-and-milk is some accomplishment.
I still stick to the same main streets most of the time, because otherwise I'll get lost and Argelo will just swallow me whole. I can't get used to a place where so many people shove each other, and I can never tell who's just woken up and who's about to go to bed. I don't even know if I'm supposed to be tired, and that makes me more tired. Random people want to talk to me about Nagpur, a place I know almost nothing about.
But Bianca already knows all the best places in every neighborhood. "This is the café where they do these donuts. Abraham here is a genius at grinding the stalks and getting them just the right muddy consistency." She drags me by the arm into a wooden cavern, which reminds me of the Illyrian Parlour except they just drink coffee by the light of tiny candles. She gives me a bite of a donut, and it's incredible: sweet and crumbly, pure happiness. Abraham, a big guy with a bald head and stretched-out ears, pauses in the middle of grating some dark sticks into a bowl to wave at her.
I stare at all the people crammed onto all the seats, stools, and ledges in this thick air. Two girls squeeze onto a single oak chair, holding hands and whispering. At the table next to ours, a group of students wearing loose, torn clothing argue about the nature of consciousness, in a flurry of Argelan that I about half understand. Are we conscious because we perceive the outside world, or because we are aware of our own thoughts? One young man, with a high forehead and bony shoulders, says that by definition consciousness is the ability to act on our environment with intent, because otherwise sleep would be a form of consciousness. What about crocodiles? someone asks. They have some kind of insectoid hive behavior, but does that make them conscious, or just a complex manifestation of instinct? I tune out this conversation, because they're idiots.
And meanwhile, the two girls are kissing, right in front of the whole café. I can't stop looking at these girls, with a Xiosphanti voice inside my head blaring Unnatural—and then I'm ashamed to be caught staring, and I look away with my face hot. Bianca's already standing up, ready to leave.
"Here's what I learned about Argelo." Bianca stops to wave at everyone who passes on the street, and they all wave back. "People spend all their time and energy trying to live in the perfect spot, with just enough light to let you see some color. And then, once you've got your home in the light, you spend all your remaining money in bars and cafés, where it's pitch dark." Bianca dresses like a fashionable Argelan lady, with ribbons, silk, and lace, but people still gawp at her, especially now that she's put a bold red streak into her lopsided black hair and started wearing luminescent makeup.
At last Bianca takes me to the place with that wondrous drink. It's one of the hottest bars in the Knife, called Punch Face. (The name in Argelan sounds a lot like the word for "shutter malfunction" in Xiosphanti.) The darkness inside Punch Face is so thick and smoky I almost step on a famous torch singer named Marilynne.
But Bianca sees better than me, and also she knows the whole scene by heart. She talks in my ear, just in Argelan, except for a few words in Xiosphanti. "That man you almost kicked, that's Gabriel. He's been making a fortune speculating on sour cherries, because they are in huge demand right now thanks to being a key ingredient in this amazing drink that you are about to try for the very first time." The drink is called an Amanuensis, and my first sip is tart, but with a fizzy sweet afterburn. "See? Forget you ever even tasted gin-and-milk. You could rob Gabriel right now, and nobody would care. Except don't rob him in here, because I don't want to get thrown out of my favorite club."
Punch Face looks no bigger than the Zone House back home, as far as I can tell, without ever seeing the walls. The center of the room is taken up with a black fire, which devours light instead of giving it off—this is something they rescued from one of the old space shuttles, and it has a complicated explanation that I cannot hear over the noise. A group of musicians hunch on one side of the space, slapping a pair of drums and grinding out a rhythmic melody on guitars and a piano, with a singer hissing, "You can trust me, I want to bite you." People dance in loose clothes that billow like the waves of the Sea of Murder. The air has a sugary tang, as if everyone is sweating out their sweet drinks.
The music speeds up. We all crush into the center of the room, arms under legs. Our torsos slide sideways across each other, and I'm going to implode with happiness. I don't know this dance we're doing, but I don't need to. I follow the music and the other people, and our bodies speak to each other with heat and pressure. All my nerve endings go wide awake. We put everything we have up in the air, then fall on top of each other. I hear Bianca laugh, feel her grabbing my waist with both hands to lift me into the air. And then there's a man nearby, with no shirt and sweat running along the ridges of his muscles. He laughs too, as his body whips between us. All my usual anxiety is gone. Everything feels brilliant. Bianca and I are alive and we're together, here on the other side of the world, in this dark warm room full of beautiful dancers. I want to fall into this moment forever.