The Big Idea: Charlie Jane Anders
Night follows day, day follows night — or does it? It depends on where you live. And in The City in the Middle of the Night, award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders considers a world where neither follows the other, and everything that entails for her characters and their lives.
CHARLIE JANE ANDERS:
Five or six years ago, I became obsessed with tidally locked planets.
These planets, where one side always faces the sun and there’s a permanent day side and a permanent night side, were turning out to be incredibly common in our galaxy. And it was looking as if any exoplanet our descendents might colonize would turn out to be tidally locked.
And this image, of living on a planet with permanent chilly darkness on one side, and boiling hot sunlight on the other, captivated me and took over my imagination. In my novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, direct sunlight is actually toxic, so humans can only live in the thin zone of twilight in between the day and night sides.
(I thought about calling my novel Twilight, or The Twilight Zone, but apparently those titles were already taken? Also, the strip of twilight is called the Terminator, so I thought about calling my novel The Terminator—but turns out someone already used that one, too.)
I grew up in the country, with no street lights anywhere nearby. So the nights were incredibly dark, and if you wandered far enough from my parents’ house, you couldn’t even see your own hand in front of your face. I used to play flashlight tag with some of the neighborhood kids, and we would run around in total darkness until one of us ran into the electric fence around the horse field out back. Good times.
So I loved the image of endless, total darkness, which humans can barely even explore because we’ve lost all of our survival gear and all-terrain vehicles. The City in the Middle of the Night started to click for me when I thought of it as the story of a girl, Sophie, who gets banished into the night side of her planet, and learns to communicate with the creatures who live in the darkness.
These creatures, the Gelet, have their own science and technology, but humans decided they were just dumb animals because we couldn’t understand them. And they can’t live in our light, any more than we can live in their darkness.
That image of a girl getting banished into total darkness, colder than the South Pole, led to a whole story. Sophie is a shy girl, who doesn’t talk to you unless she knows you really well —-in fact, she’s the opposite of a lot of the other heroes I’ve written. She stays in the background and never raises her voice, and she definitely doesn’t stand up at any point and give a rousing speech. But she’s still the hero of the story, and her courage inspires people and changes the world.
And Sophie goes on an incredible journey—-not just wandering into frozen darkness, but also traveling from one human city to another. She has to journey with a group of smugglers from her hometown to the city of Argelo. They cross the Sea of Murder, which is a whole ocean that is a solid ice shelf on one side, and on the other side is a scalding wall of steam that will cook you alive if you sail too close to it. And did I mention the Sea of Murder has pirates? And giant sea monsters?
The other thing I kept thinking about as I wrote this book is just how weird it would be to live without sunrise and sunset. If you couldn’t look up at the sky and see the sun changing positions, along with the shadows moving around and changing shape, how would you know when to sleep and when to work? How would you even know how much time was passing if the sun never changed its position?
In my book, “night” and “day” are places rather than times, and I avoided using any words like “minute,” “hour,” “second,” “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” (Thank goodness the amazing copy-editor caught a few places where I slipped up.)
And this becomes a huge social divide for the humans living on January, as different societies approach the problem of sleep and time management differently. One human city has a rigid curfew, and everyone sleeps and works at the same time, because they believe that if we don’t keep a strict circadian rhythm, then we stop even being human. But another city, known as the City That Never Sleeps, has a much more chaotic approach (and way better parties.)
This debate is about more than just what time to go to sleep, or how to structure your life: at its root, it’s an argument over the nature of humanity, especially when we’ve gone to live on another planet where we’re an invasive species.
And I guess that’s the thing I was obsessing about in general in this book. My fascination with tidally locked planets led me in a couple of different directions: 1) Communicating with radically different creatures who live in an environment we can’t even visit, and 2) The debate over when to sleep and how to organize our time, without sunrise and sunset. And both of those questions come down to: what does it mean to be human? Who do we think of as people? How do we understand each other as equals, instead of trying to control each other?
When never-ending darkness lurks on the edge of town and the sky offers no clues as to how much time has passed, “human nature” is up for grabs. I had a lot of fun exploring this bizarre world and the questions it raises, and I’m so excited to share The City in the Middle of the Night with you.