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Occasional Media Consumption: The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

In an introduction to a book once, Neil Gaiman may have written it -- I'm not sure because my google-fu is failing me right now, but that's not the important part -- where the essayist points out that while yes, Moby-Dick is about man's inhumanity and also the relationships that we have with one another and what happens to us in extremis but, most importantly, it is also a book about a whale. The point being made was, of course, that truly excellent books are about something, but they are also about something. And that's the thing I keep coming back to again and again having read Charlie Jane Anders' The City in the Middle of the Night. There is a lot of things that this book is about, but it's also a book about first contact on an alien world. And if it didn't work on that fundamental level, it wouldn't work at all.

I'm not going to spoil anything, because I'm not an asshole, but I will say this: the tone and voice and flow of this novel is completely different from Anders' first novel, All the Birds in the Sky, and yet it is also clearly and exceptionally written by the same author. While Birds skirted the edges of fantastical and satirical, eventually resting on the continuum somewhere near Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency in terms of tone, City is much more grounded in the real. It's clear the author spent a lot of time thinking and researching this world, not because it's all laid out, but indeed because it's almost never laid out for you. This novel is a master-class in the Heinlein-esque property of "The door dilated."

The other thing that I can't get over is how brilliant and messy and human all the characters are. They're generous and selfish and silly and dumb and cowardly and brave... and then there's all the characters who aren't the main character... The tone of the world and the characters and how they move through the world they inhabit remind me of nothing so much as Kameron Hurley's work, especially her Bel Dame Apocrypha series. These are characters that you love, and also want to gently, lovingly bop on the side of the head, possibly with a frying pan.

Some stories are so frenetic that you end your reading panting, like you've just run a marathon. Some stories are languid, letting you take time to stretch out and really dive into the world and the characters. And some stories, like this one, maintain that interval-style pacing, where just when you think you can't go any faster, it stops for a moment to take a breath, let you get your legs, and then immediately takes off again. It's impressive and astounding and I want to read it again.

Like the very best Neal Stephenson works, City is by itself complete. There's no need for a sequel; everyone you know and have met is where they need to be, doing what they need to do, being exactly themselves, as they've showed you since the beginning of the book. But also like the best of Stephenson, City doesn't end with a neat denouement. Instead, it leaves that as an exercise for the reader; it recognizes that sometimes, the story is best served by stopping. It's tricky to get right, but Anders sticks the landing with aplomb.

There is a lot of great SF and Fantasy being written right now; nevermind the "golden age", the authors of today are a crowded field of brilliant works that blow previous generations away with their craft, their insight, and their brilliance. But it would not surprise me if in 10 years City has become a favourite read/reread for not just me, but for many SF fans.

I encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself.


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