All the Birds in the Sky

PrintThe Short Version: Two young outsiders – Patricia (a witch) and Laurence (a computer geek) – strike up an unlikely friendship in grade school. Although fate sends them careening in opposite directions, their lives are inextricably entwined as the planet grows ever more chaotic and their reunion as adults will either save the world – or destroy it.

The Review: Considering they get shelved together, sci-fi and fantasy don’t actually tend to co-exist. Sure, you’ve got magic in a modern setting with your urban fantasy and some Weird fiction blends the two in innovative ways – but traditionally they remain apart even as they sit next to one another at the dinner table.

Enter Charlie Jane Anders, who currently edits that hub of all things SFF, io9.com, and who has no patience for this nearly binary system. She takes fantasy (witches, magic, curses) and science-fiction (a two-second time machine, wormholes, sentient computers) and blends them together into a single convincing world that, quite frankly, looks a whole lot like ours might in the next few years. The two sets of ideas are not only very well-developed, but she makes them inherently compatible.

Perhaps this is because she starts with the main characters as kids – and not just kids, but the ones who got picked on for no other reason than that they didn’t follow the crowd and, as a result, were easy targets on the edge of the herd. Patricia and Laurence are every kid who’d rather read at recess, build computers instead of play outside, or get lost in the forest trying to talk to trees instead of doing whatever they’re “supposed” to be doing. Smart kids have it tough – they did when I was in grade school and it’s only gotten worse as testing standards have replaced the more important benchmarks of learning – and Anders puts them through the ringer here. Early in the book, after Laurence has run away to catch the launch of a rocket, his parents pick him up and reprimand him, saying “that life isn’t an adventure, for chrissake, life is a long slog and a series of responsibilities and demands. When Laurence was old enough to do what he liked, he would be old enough to understand that he couldn’t do what he liked.”
But during said speech, Laurence is sneaking peeks at a sci-fi paperback under the table – he rejects that boring notion of what life can be like and so, too, does Patricia. Their families don’t “get” them and that lack of acceptance messes them up pretty bad, causing their adult lives to be some measure of never quite fitting in or feeling safe in a spot. Laurence’s self-sabotage in his relationships, Patricia’s chafing under the constraints of her magical cohort, and even their tumultuous relationship with each other are the result of trying to fit in but not quite knowing how to do so.If you stripped out the sci-fi and the fantasy, these characters would still exist and still feel as raw and complicated and vulnerable and in this, Anders has added a third genre to the book: it’s a beautiful coming-of-age story.

But back to the sci-fi and the fantasy. Admittedly, the book does occasionally get a little too wonky, a little too focused on the sci or the fantasy, and we get saddled with an info drop that’s a little too large – but there’s the sense that Anders wanted to include all this information to show that the universe she’s built can in fact exist. Not unlike Laurence, tinkering away and wanting to show his work, she’s giving us more than we need in order to show just how much reality is behind all of this. And editing io9 has certainly given her a leg up: brief diversions into Elon Musk-esque plans to escape Earth via rockets, quantum theory positing that gravity exists differently elsewhere in the multiverse, schools of magic rooted in the two great archetypes of Healer and Trickster… It even makes sense that, like when 3DO tried to add the Forge to Heroes of Might and Magic III, the fantasy camp would loathe the scientific one. You can see in her writing a mind that has consumed and been marinating in speculative culture for freaking decades – and who has discovered (and this is a new thing, probably for even still for kids today, although it’s gotten better) that these things all have value, that looking up to the stars or out into the forest and letting your imagination run wild is not only a worthy use of your mind, but it should be encouraged (take note, again, any parents or future-parents reading this).

Speaking of influences, Anders has delivered a hell of an entry into the long tradition of slyly humorous authorial voices that includes Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams (to whom she is compared, favorably, in The New York Times) and that fast-paced, deceptively simple tone serves the story well. Early in the novel, Patricia and Laurence are hanging out at the mall and making up stories for the people they’re people-watching. One of these stories is that a particular man is an assassin – which turns out to be true, explained by Anders to hilarious effect. Although the overtly absurdist coloring fades away a bit as the book goes on, Anders seems to have her eye on the thing that people don’t give absurd humorists like Adams and Pratchett et al enough credit for: their heart. For this book not only makes you laugh and grin, but it’ll make your heart swell up and make you feel the way you do when you see the person you love or when something that’s bothered you suddenly becomes clear.

For one thing, it’s the first time I’ve read an apocalypse story that left me feeling hopeful. My So Many Damn Books co-host Christopher was relating to me the other day that he’s dystopia’d-out, tired of the bleak imaginings of the future that seem to be so in vogue these days. And while Anders’ book does present to us a near-future that certainly doesn’t look pleasant (superstorms, food shortages, etc), she presents two characters who are working (admittedly in different ways) to prevent things from getting worse. Patricia and Laurence both want the world to get better and the last scenes of the novel just made my heart absolutely melt. You’ll never look at the world “indestructible” the same way – and, without wanting to give too much away, I closed the book imagining that it took on a bigger meaning, for the reader and for humanity: that we might just be indestructible, too. You’d think that “love will save the day” is played out, sappy, passé in our jaded and bitter world today… but Charlie Jane made it work, not as deus ex machina but just as a reminder, outside of the story, that we might just be okay.

Rating: 5+ out of 5. If there’s any justice in the world, this book will be the next The Night Circus – it made me feel that same joy while reading and it carries with it the same authorial joy and delight at the magic of the world (whether that magic manifests as magic or tech). I was utterly wowed, even if it got a little wonky at points; it is a superlative blend of fantasy and science-fiction in equal measure – and even if you don’t like one or both of those things, it’s still worth reading because it’s hilarious, heartfelt, and gives some readers some much welcome hope that our future (whether fantastical or scientific) might just be better than our present.  What a way to kick off my year in reading.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: The Dispossessed | Raging Biblio-holism

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