Locus Awards 2020 Nominee: The City in the Middle of the Night

"Listen to yourself, hear your own footsteps, your breaths, your heartbeats, oh, how many rhythms you make as you come and go! you are an orchestra." (152)

Three Cities. Two human: one free, one authoritarian. Both polluted, running out of resources and at war.

One Alien, highly advanced and living in harmony with their planet. Until that harmony is disrupted by humans.

The City in the Middle of the Night

The planet January has been populated by seven great cities from Earth. Unfortunately, as humans will do, they have brought their wars with them. They even have one on board the Mother Ship, a wonderful oxymoron referred to as The Hydroponic Garden Massacre.

Charlie Jane Anders (All the birds in the Sky) has built an amazing world full of intrigue and action in this book. It would make a great film; a cross between Stephen King's Dark Tower series and Dune, with a hint of Braavos from Game of Thrones. The story is sensual and visual; colourful with lots of imagery.

It's a speculative story, yet jam packed with action from the get-go.

Ticking all the boxes, the story also has great characters, with complex relationships. The lines of companionship are blurred. Characters are variously sleep-mates, road buddies, friends, companions and allies; and there are jealousies, betrayals and loyalty. Anders throws in the concept of 'Anchor-Banter' for good measure: a person who is your jinx, or if combined, a duo making trouble for others.

Sophie, a student in a radical group, finds she can communicate with an Alien species after she is cast out of the city of Xiosphant.

Her bunk-mate Bianca is a privileged aristocrat, with ambitions to rise in society and idealist ideas of changing their way of life. Yet she is a user and self-interested.

Mouth is a smuggler. Originally one of the Citizens: a nomadic people who travelled in harmony with the planet, she prefers to be on the road between Xiosphant and Argelo.

Mouth's sleep-mate, Alyssa, has ambitions to retire, in one of the cities, much to Mouth's disgust. The two have helped each other survive through many scrapes on the road.

"In a city, you could only walk in circles...People lived with more things than they could carry, and they pretended that built structures were geographical features." (69)

Xiosphant, "the city of dawn" (p.285), reminds me of Braavos, the City of the Men Without Faces in Game of Thrones.

However this city is a very controlled environment, working on a circadian theory of time. Shutters and bells control the daily routine, keeping everyone in a hurry like insects in a hive.

Authoritarian patrols enforce a curfew after shutters up for the evening. Racial history from the seven cities is denied citizens; in favour of evolving as one, but classism still operates and strangers are viewed with suspicion.

The ideology of timefulness is used as force. Its all a bit like Orwell's 1984 or Thatcher's Britain.

Argelo, "the dusk city" (p285), is quite the opposite: established by those who escaped the authoritarian way of life in Xiosphant, it's hedonistic and free. Its citizens tend to find a home in the sun, then spend most of their income on partying at night. Though there is a huge gap between the distibution of wealth, Argelos' inhabitants are encouraged to celebrate their cultural identities.

The distance between the cities is becoming harder to travel. On the night side, ice, snow and freezing rain can kill. During the day, burning sun is the enemy. Now, there is toxic rain...

Anders has imagined impressive, enormous creatures to hinder movement; lobster-like 'crocodiles' with pincers and tentacles, man-eating bison with armadillo shells and super-sized squid in the Sea of Murder, to name a few:

"At first, they thought some seismic event had torn through the ice...But the mist cleared and Alyssa spotted the cause of the eruption: one tentacle, covered with iridescent feathers and tipped with a leaf-shaped barb the size of a tenement, had burst upward from the frozen ocean, filling the space like a new monument.." (p.508)

"The fleshy tip of the squid's long arm landed right in front of the ATV, blocking their path. Blocking out the rest of the world, even. The frond shaped growth wriggled, almost playfully, and it's huge feathers undulated in the wind." (p.513)

Anders' vision of an ocean of blue roaches really stayed in my mind (p.359). I won't tell you what they were capable of!

Sophie's discovery that she can meld minds with the creatures she calls Gelet is not for the squeamish. More like lobsters than the description of crocodiles, in order to communicate with the Gelet, you have to put your head inside its pincers, and connect your face to its tentacles. Diddachuck, duddachum...

"We have our own city. We can work together." (p123)

The Gelet City; the Midnight City, is deep under the planet's surface. Bio and geo-engineering are used by these enormous creatures to shape the planet and control the flow of rivers of ice and magma. A race of menders, builders and explorers (p.187) they use nature and technology; their own and bits of human tech retrieved from waste. Lava is used for heat and energy, a floral web dissipates the output and raises their young. 

Human technology however, "told a story about people who never quit building and killing."' (p.566) Anders articulates this idea through Sophie's realisation that "...we live in a tiny space and pretend its the whole world." (p.523)

As resources dwindle and toxicity threatens the planet, a fight for survival becomes imminent for everyone.

When the Gelet share that their intent towards humans with Sophie is benign; she begins to understand that the survival of all is their key goal.

Will the two cities join forces to survive climate change and dwindling supplies? Will they cooperate or make war on the Gelet? You better be ready for an ending you couldn't imagine possible!

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