Worldbuilding With Science-Fiction Author Charlie Jane Anders

Signing for The City in the Middle of the Night at BookPeople

When 2020 presidential hopeful Kamala Harris stated that climate change called for “science fact, not science fiction,” she probably expected some resistance from denialists, but not a rebuttal from the world of literature. That’s exactly what she got from sci-fi author Charlie Jane Anders in a Washington Post op-ed.

Charlie Jane Anders (Photo by Sara Deragon)

In it, Anders says that “when the truth becomes near-impossible to distinguish through the fog of disinformation and ‘alternative facts,’ people tend to feel powerless to change the world.” She characterizes science fiction as “the literature of problem-solving,” reminding us that “our made-up stories about science and innovation can play an important role in helping us to regain our faith in our own ability to create change.”

As a nationally bestselling author, Anders has certainly changed the literary landscape. Her debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky, won the Nebula Award for Best Novel, was a Hugo Award finalist, and appeared on Paste Magazine’s list of “50 Best Books of the 21st Century (So Far).” Her new book, The City in the Middle of the Night, is set to receive similar success. In his glowing praise of City, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Andrew Sean Greer characterized Anders as “this generation’s [Ursula K.] Le Guin.” Amazon named it both one of February’s best sci-fi books and one of the month’s 10 best books, period.

The City in the Middle of the Night is set on dying exoplanet January, a world split between a dark, frozen wasteland and blinding, 24/7 sunlight. Two dystopian cities fight for survival in the middle: rigidly controlled Xiosphant and the lawless, hedonistic Argelo. The story is likewise divided between two narrators: Sophie (a Xiosphanti student left for dead outside the city) and Mouth (a woman sans tribe, home, and proper name). It’s an intricate, multifaceted novel with an astonishing world that, like ours, also needs innovation and imagination to effect change. The Chronicle spoke with Charlie Jane Anders in an email interview about the world, people, and impact of her new book.

Austin Chronicle: Why was it important to have two protagonists, Sophie and Mouth, in The City in the Middle of the Night?

Charlie Jane Anders: Originally, it just had one narrator, Sophie, and at a certain point I felt like it needed a different perspective and voice in the mix. Then Mouth took on a life of her own. I liked that Mouth was more action-oriented and cynical than Sophie.

AC: You’re excellent at worldbuilding. Will City be a stand-alone novel, or have you thought about expanding this world out into multiple books?

CJA: Thank you so much! I did a ton of work on the worldbuilding in this particular story. I would love to do a continuation, depending on how people respond to this one. If you read the “translator’s note” at the start of the book, it’s clear that this is the beginning of a much larger story.

AC: A theme of City is processing trauma. Did you have this in mind when you started writing, or did it develop organically?

CJA: One of the things that stuck in my mind while working on City is the fact that you can’t see the passage of time by looking up at the sky. No sunrise and no sunset means that people don’t have a clear sense of how much time has passed, which in turn messes with their understanding of the past. And one thing that anyone who has dealt with trauma knows is, trauma also screws with your awareness of the past. So this seemed like a really good thing to explore in this particular book.

AC: Science fiction often has a sociopolitical undercurrent. Is that part of the genre’s appeal for you?

CJA: I’ve always loved the fact that science fiction can ask the big questions about society and community, including the fairest way to distribute resources and all those other thorny issues. I think for me, writing sci-fi will always, in part, be a way to ask questions about who gets to be considered a person and what it means to be alive. And also how we deal with the past, which is a big issue in this particular book.

The City in the Middle of the Night
by Charlie Jane Anders
Tor Macmillan, 368 pp., $26.99

Charlie Jane Anders reads from and signs her new novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, Tue., Feb. 19, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. A copy of the book must be purchased from BookPeople to be signed. For more information, call 512/472-5050 or visit

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