Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
🎵 The song for this post is Boys, by Lizzo. 🎵
As a listener and Patron of the podcast Flash Forward (you should listen! it's a fantastic show!) I'm part of its nascent book club, our first book was The City In The Middle Of The Night, by Charlie Jane Anders. I really enjoyed this!
If you enjoy far-off sci-fi, a lot of its elements are crafted with care. When I play D&D I'm frequently sad that many adventuring scenarios (say, "tomb of a lost civilization") are unlikely in the real world, at least in the D&D sense — the tombs we discover don't contain working traps, or an ecosystem of guardian critters just milling about for thousands of years, or that it contains an artifact which can regrow lost limbs. Often, the people who built the tomb are from a civilization we've heard of and know a fair bit about, and its contents are dusty and brittle.
I mention this because it's just as fun to wonder how we, currently can become a "lost civilization," and City sets its story in a lovely, plausible such way. There's a Goldilocks-level of distance between the reader and the novel's setting, so you're often reading with a background process running of connecting the two, and many clues (the names given to the planet's food and wildlife, the brief mentions of what the characters learned in history class, descriptions of the tech) mean you have something to chew on while the action is happening.
I sometimes remember this paragraph from a reivew of Twilight by Paul Constant when I think of authors and what they're good at:
But the truth of megapublishing is that mega-authors must only do one thing really well: Stephen King writes a disturbing scene more effectively than any other author; Dan Brown moves a plot forward with such velocity that readers don't have time to realize that nothing makes sense. What Meyer does, maybe better than anyone else in popular fiction right now, is capture that sensation of new teenage love, when one's genitals have just come alive and the desire to copulate is so powerful and all-consuming that the teenage brain, still reeling from the recent passage from childhood, has to interpret it as powerful, undying love—the kind of love that nobody on earth has ever or will ever experience again.
I feel like the strength of City comes from an a similarly-skilled understanding of bonds, relationships, and trauma. If I was given this setting + plot and had to write it out as a novel, nobody would come along with it or find it enjoyable. I feel like Anders really taps into the feelings of love, commitment, and motivations behind people in varying degrees of stress and desperation. If you imagine relationship commentary as a Jenga tower, the characters start with decent-but-believable baggage, and all the sci-fi/adventure works to carefully whittle away at that tower so reading the novel is progressively more impressive.
If you're looking for your next fiction read, I'd recommend it 😄
SPOILERS GOING FORWARD, YE BE WARNED
Here, I'll just fire away quick observations, devoid of context:
Compositionally, the ending felt a bit abrupt for me, as it happened on the cusp of some great conflicts. This may be (hopefully!) setting it up for future stories, but I was a little sad to reach it.
In the Acknowledgements, the author playfully mentions a reader who debated them over one of the fictional constructs (Xiosphant having multiple types of currency), and I feel like I'd play that role about some of the wildlife. A part of my brain wondered how so many unbelievably threatening predators sustain themselves in such a wasteland; predators tend to arise only when there's a lot of prey available, and you never have too many.
Despite that nit, however, I love the "There Be Dragons Here, But Actually" vibe of monsters and intercity travel.
The use of Earth animal names for these other creatures was endearing, a funny and believable thing for humans to preserve. It also, like the combined animals of Avatar: The Last Airbender (buzzard wasps!) added some levity.
Generally, all the naming was delightful ("swamp vodka," how many things were made with moss, "food dollars" vs. "infrastructure chits," "cat butter") and helped build this world that frankly sounds disgusting and charming, and is believably normalized by its inhabitants.
I seem to hate Bianca a whole lot less than other reviewers seemed to. Like, yes, she reminds me of a group of people who drive me absolutely crazy (a lot of my margin notes are "WHITE GUILT" when she rationalizes). I didn't think my job reading the book was to agree with or like her, I only required that she and the people reacting to her be believable, which they creepily are.
I found the Citizens to be very intruiging — I have a lot of jumbled thoughts around interdependence as a concept (history of social collapse frequently names it the most important cause; meanwhile, isolationist societies tend to fail too, tend to suck, and are boring). There are a lot of very provocative lines about the chosen life on the road ("a lot of what we call civilization is just neglect"). One of the reasons I don't plan on going to Burning Man again was because both trips contained and triggered some traumatic experiences I've had with intentional, dependent communities, so this was almost therapeutic to work through, especially since I'd already found Mouth to be such a delightful character.
Another review thinks this entire book is about societies and ideology:
In every book, there is a moment. A point at which the writer must lay out, in plain terms, their central argument. It doesn't matter where it happens, only that it does. […] Everything before it will be prologue. Everything after, the result.
[…] Charlie Jane Anders places her argument on page 212, halfway down the page, in the middle of a moment of tumult, in the process of meeting a new character. "Grand social ideas… break if you put too much weight on them."
That's the book. All of it. Twelve words.
I… don't buy this at all. The Citizens' downfall doesn't at all come from "putting too much weight" on their ideas, ditto the Gelet. Even Xiosphant and Argelo don't really "collapse" because too much weight goes into their differences — they'd probably be relatively stable if the planet weren't so hostile. Suboptimal, sure, but part-in-parcel with human societies, at least as we've observed them.
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