Review: All the Birds in the Sky

Posted by: |

Review: All the Birds in the Sky

One day the Singularity would elevate humans to cybernetic superbeings, and maybe then people would say what they meant.
Probably not, though.

Charlie Jane Anders’s Hugo-nominated book, All the Birds In the Sky is a modern-day fantasy/sci-fi drama that’s partly about a global apocalypse and a war between science and magic, but mostly about two young outcasts trying to find their place in the world and in each other’s lives.

Put yourself in the place of a typical highschooler, with more than the typical amount of high-school misery. Add the complication of being a budding engineering genius (if you’re Laurence), or you’ve just been told by the Parliament of Birds that you’re actually a witch (if you’re Patricia). Imagine stumbling across the one person in the world who understands you, not because they share your passions, but because they think your passions are weird and fascinating and something that makes you you.

Now imagine finding out that the two of you are destined to destroy the world.

The author starts the book by setting the stage with Laurence and Patricia’s respective home lives and school experiences, and my God, it’s unrelentingly upsetting. Anders obviously has a lot of axes to grind when it comes to bullying, and ineffectual teachers, and completely and totally useless parents. It effectively gets you into the mindset of a bullied teenager who feels like the whole world is against them (and it also make you fully appreciate their wonder at finding someone who doesn’t  treat them like a freak). But it’s still a pretty brave move to spend the first quarter of the story making the reader so mad that they want to chuck the book across the room.

Patricia and Laurence are both children of people who should probably have never had children. Laurence’s parents have given up on so many of their dreams (and resenting the hell out of each other for it) that they spend most of their time trying to get Laurence to be sensible, ie: stop wanting to be a scientist and trying to be happy. Patricia’s parents have the highest expectations for her, and their way of showing it is to constantly criticize every misstep, lock her in her room for weeks at a time (with food pushed under the door) and idolize Patricia’s “perfect” older sister. (We find out what a monster Roberta is on the first page of the book. And then she gets worse.)

“You know… no matter what you do, people are going to expect you to be someone you’re not. But if you’re clever and lucky and work your butt off, then you get to be surrounded by people who expect you to be the person you wish you were.”

School is a nightmare; fellow students alternate between shunning, and creating more creative ways to torment both of them. Then a member of an elite group of assassins becomes a guidance counselor and does his best to get around his order’s ban on killing children by doing everything he possibly can to agitate students, parents, and everyone else to the dirty work of destroying Patricia and Laurence for him. Things become almost cartoonishly awful. It takes the unexpected aftereffects from inventing a two-second time machine and learning to shapeshift before the characters (and the reader) can breathe a sigh of relief and move on.

The life that they separately make for themselves ten years later is one of the parts of the story which I actually enjoyed. Laurence’s wiz-kid technology and Patricia’s secret spellcasting fit beautifully well in the author’s whimsical version of San Francisco, filled with fly-by-night coffee shops, absinthe bar bookstores and a range of amusingly weird roommates and cohorts. Even when the growing environmental problems merge into one horrific event and the world governments react as badly as you’d imagine, San Francisco just uses that as an excuse to be even more eccentric. (I’ll just say this: roving madrigal groups.)

Trust hipsters to make even the collapse of civilization unbearably twee.

And even though every moment of happiness for Patrica and Laurence leads to just another gut punch, I think the author did a good job to frame their conflict as something more than just magic vs science. It’s more like a difference of focus, of priorities. Laurence’s group is dedicated to saving the human race, even if it means saving just a handful of humans by taking them to another planet, regardless of what it means for this planet. The witches Patricia is in league with try to do everything they can to minimize suffering for individuals, and aren’t interested in a “bigger” picture that doesn’t include, y’know, the planet we happen to be on. Both sides see themselves as the good guys, and both are convinced that the other side doesn’t just have different methods, they’re actually trying to make things worse. Much like politics today. Ahem. Anders has a lot of surprisingly insightful observations on humanity in general, and the tendency of humans to just forget how to communicate with other humans.

“We don’t need better emotional communication from machines. We need people to have more empathy. The reason the Uncanny Valley exists is because humans created it to put other people into. It’s how we justify killing each other.”

The style of this book is hard to quantify. It starts out as young-adult, but then there’s fairly graphic sex later. Anders throws in some entertainingly weird situations (like the assassin trying to convince himself his ice-cream couldn’t possibly be poisoned)(spoiler: it was). Things get a touch action-hero-y for my taste towards the end, and there are a couple of whiplash-inducing personality changes that are still kind of satisfying. A large number of secondary characters don’t get enough facetime for us to really care about them, and at least one character’s story just gets dropped and never picked up again. And I haven’t decided what I think about the ending yet. Wrapped up too conveniently? Masterfully set-up over the course of the novel? Your individual experience may vary. Personally  I thought we should have gotten just a little more to find out what happened next. Anders’s writing is quirky enough that if she did write another story set in this world, I’d probably read it.