Set on January, a tidally-locked terrestrial planet with one side scorched with perpetual stellar radiation and the other permanently in darkness, a frozen glacial wasteland, impenetrable by humans who live in fragile city states in the strip of twilight separating day and night.
This spectacular setting sets up a story of survival centered on three cities: authoritarian Xiosphanti where regimented time forms the basis of ideology, the anarchistic Argelo where power is distributed between ruling families and crime syndicates, and the secret city of the title, where alien creatures strive to sustain a utopian group mind society under the ice.
The narrative viewpoint alternates between two main characters who oscillate between being outsiders and assimilating into social groups.
Sophie is a student from a darker region of Xiosphanti (humans being humans, the layout of the city maps socio-economic boundaries to light levels, with poorer workers housed in dim localities close to to the freezing night, while the aristocracy live in warmth and sunshine). Through her glamorous, more privileged roomate Bianca, she’s introduced to a radical group gathering in secret to agitate against the rigid social order. Impulsively, to protect Bianca who she has a crush on, she takes the fall for a petty act of stealing by Bianca, and is forceably expelled from Xiosphanti and left in the frozen wasteland to die, a cruel and excessive punishment meant to discourage and intimidate other student radicals.
Mouth is the muscle for a band of smugglers who traffic goods between the two cities, filling the economic gap created by a Xiosphanti prohibition of trade. As Sophie is being dragged out of the city, Mouth is coming in via a secret tunnel. She hates the city and at first and isn’t happy about being stuck there, but soon gets fixated on a vision for stealing an artefact from the city palace that she has a personal connection to. She soon meets Bianca who has been further radicalised rather than intimidated and grooms her by faking interest in a revolutionary attack on the palace, seeking information and an opportunity.
The entanglement of the viewpoint characters Sophie and Mouth with Bianca drives the plot forward as more and more details emerge about changing climate, deadly toxic rain and the decay and imminent collapse of the infrastructure that holds the fragile urban areas together.
Sophie survives being cast out through being rescued by the Gelet, mysterious ‘crocodile’ aliens that live on the ice and appear to have technology which protects them from the freezing temperatures. Humans have hunted the Gelet with no understanding of the sophistication of their technology and society, and up until meeting Sophie, the Gelet have not tried to bridge this gap directly. Sophie learns that the aliens are not only much more sophisticated than anyone knows, but that they can communicate with an immersive sensory form of telepathy, raising the possibility of humans being able to join with them.
A lot of people have made the comparison to The Left Hand of Darkness, and while this novel firmly sits within that tradition, it could also be described as The Good Terrorist (in Space). I’m utterly fascinated with exoplanets and the potential climate patterns and biology of tidally-locked ‘eyeballs’, so I snapped up this novel as soon as I saw it appear in NZ bookshops. But this story turns out to be much more about how societies rise and fall, how group cohesion emerges in different forms with different relationships to power and personal choice, and how overthrowing oppressive systems without a longer-term vision for cultural change can result in reproducing more of the same system.
Survival is reflected in many dimensions of the story. Refreshingly, The City in The Middle of the Night is not at all dystopian in its framing or mood, but nor is it intoxicated with dreams of solarpunk or ‘hopepunk’ redemption. Instead, it centres the ambiguity and ambition of its characters, both in their huge, audacious visions for the world and for themselves, but also their will to survive and the gritty day-to-day compromises they must make in order to do so. It becomes clear that survival isn’t just staying alive, but also being able to live with what you’ve done, raising constant questions about retribution and restoration. This is echoed at the planetary scale, as it becomes clear how humans have destabilised the climate on January through their blundering destruction of a vital bioengineered feedback loop. For Sophie, this brings a question of how far she’s prepared to go to restore the system of alien ecosystem engineering, even to the point of biologically merging with the alien species. The cities and their geography are symbols of survival too, wedged in the precarious space between freezing to death and boiling to death.
Another one of the key themes of this novel is what’s known to Māori as whakapapa—not the loose translation as ‘genealogy’, but its deeper meaning of a living connection to ancestors and ancestry, people and places woven in direct lines from history into the present moment. This is literally the basis of how the Gelet society functions, where past ancestors visit and meet with minds through shared cultural memories that play out in the present moment. On the human side, the starship that transported the original colonists to January figures heavily for characters in the novel’s present. The ship was modular, with each section being funded, designed and populated by different cultural and ethnic groups around the world, centered around major cities. The cultures of Xiosphanti and Argelo have a complex relationship to this past. While celebrated in Argelo, Xiosphanti have buried and surpressed active expression of original Earth identities, but despite this, they are still widely known and widely talked about in private, inflecting judgements on everything from genetics and bone structure to original Earth religions, political destiny and one’s place in society. And it turns out that these connections really do matter. Xiosphanti’s disinclination to acknowledge these origins encodes a subtle form of structural racism in their culture that echoes down the generations. Later, we learn that the aristocracy knows this and are using it to conceal the details of horrific injustices and atrocities that occurred aboard the ship and from which the aristocracy directly benefitted.
Where Sophie’s awkward and difficult realisation of this ancestry is an awakening of understanding identity, Mouth’s whakapapa is much more challenging. She did not grow up in the cities, but lived in an anomalous nomadic sect called the Citizens, who roamed the countryside practicing a strange transcendent outdoor spirituality. Mouth became the sole surviving Citizen when a swarm of deadly insectivore creatures tore through their camp stripping flesh down to the bone. This childhood of sleeping outdoors and the trauma of her unique culture being destroyed puts her at odds with nearly every other character she meets. When she finally understands the planetary scale truth of what really happened to the Citizens, her own past reckoning becomes a matter of survival for everyone on the planet.
This was a compelling and extremely satisfying novel and an extraordinary achievement of worldbuilding. Some of the subtle cultural details here are so rich and vivid that it makes other scifi societies feel like they’re scrawled in crayon. Yet none of it is infodumped. It’s all told directly through the character arcs, which is even more impressive.