Patricia and Laurence are strange children. One discovers the uncanny gift of speaking to birds, her connection to magic and the natural world; the other is a scientific prodigy who builds a supercomputer in his bedroom closet and a two-second time machine he can wear on his wrist. There are greater forces moving around them, from the adults who should be taking—though often fail to—their best interests at heart to the polarities of chaos and order that each is drawn to in different ways.
Of course, they’re much stranger adults, coming into and out of each other’s lives, stories, and grand dreams. There’s something between them, though, and their history that has the potential to save our species and home as we know it. Patricia and Laurence are, as the flap copy of Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky says, muddling through “postmillennial life and love in a world careening into chaos.” However, their big ideas and private hopes are more significant than either can imagine.
It’s a book about science and magic; it’s a book about clumsy love, awkward humans, and the mistakes we tend to make as people; it’s also a book about “these sorts of stories” and genre fiction, though less directly. Combining a science-fictional sense of wonder with a magical sense of place and time, Anders has constructed a handsome and delightful novel that represents, intentionally and indirectly alike, the best that the genre has to offer. It’s grand and intimate at the same time, mundane and fabulous alike, livened up with the high-energy intensity and touch of the bizarre that is familiar from Anders’s short fiction as well.
As for this particular reader, I frankly couldn’t be more pleased than to have started out 2016 with this novel. It’s just damn good, on each level that I cared to parse it at.
To begin, the prose is compulsively readable. Anders has found a spectacular balance between the weirdness of her short fiction—sometimes baroque in its strangeness—and the rung-bell clarity of narrative prose in a novel-length structure. I had trouble putting the book down, because despite the breaks in time as we shift throughout Patricia and Laurence’s lives, there never seems to be a dull moment. The descriptions are great; the dialogue is human and hysterical and dark at turns; the plot moves fast and delicate.
The structure, too, is well executed. It could be disorienting to jump around in time so much in two characters’ lives, but Anders chooses exactly the right moments to shift and move the timeline. It’s just enough, never too much or too little. I almost wanted to crow with delight at the skill of it, at a few specific occasions: feeling just thrown enough to scramble a little and figure out the changes that time had wrought between the sections of the novel, while never losing the hook. From a purely technical standpoint, it’s a hit out of the park—not least because it’s often dabbling in those familiar narratives of wizard-schools and singularity-seekers, twisting them around into something a bit more human and natural.
The thematic arc is familiar because of that, in some ways, but I also thought it was satisfying and richly done—plus, it’s paired so directly with the plot, they’re more or less one and the same. Patricia and Laurence are both on sides that they perhaps consider opposites, magic and science, but the reality is that is isn’t about poles but juxtapositions, spectrums, and “sides of a coin” in the sense that they are conjoined. Each is prone to hubris: one glamorizes science without acknowledging its dangers; the other values the natural world at the cost of the human condition. Combined, it is possible to see the failures of each and the failures of binaristic thinking.
(It’s no real surprise that I appreciated so grandly a book all about deconstructing one of the classic binaries that is still so commonly upheld in our lives, our stories, our world at large.)
The figure of Peregrine—the AI who is a bounded but constant background presence in the novel—is a melding of magic and tech to create something entirely new but still of a piece with the old: it’s about evolution and synthesis, not replacement and derision. Anders illustrates this through the failures of her characters in their separate spheres as well as with the conclusion of the novel. After all, the only way to avoid ripping a hole in the world with an accidental doomsday machine is magical interference; the only way to stop magical genocide is with the “child” of sorts that Patricia and Laurence created together in the form of their AI. But, even that must be joined with the base of magic and the natural world to have a complete web.
It’s about balance: balance between people, but also balance between ideas and nodes. It’s a novel very much invested in rhizomic rather that polar thinking—so it’s got that high level Big Ideas thing going for it—but it’s also deeply invested in the individual, the human, the emotional and personal costs of our lives.
One thing that I found charming, also, is that at the heart of all this post-millennial weirdness is a fairly old-fashioned tale of soulmates: people who fit each other, despite the travails and losses and separations that plague them throughout their lives. There’s a freshness to that, paradoxically, as well—because it isn’t easy, for either Patricia or Laurence, to make their relationship work. There are communication issues, to say the least; there are issues of need, place, and poor timing; there are different life-paths and decisions that have to be made alone. It’s a sort of updated picture of the couple that are meant to be, one that acknowledges the hardship and struggle of that kind of relationship rather than making is sunny and fated and perfect.
But without that match—without their jagged individual edges lining up, again and again, over years and years of life—then humanity would have been doomed by the overreaches of science or magic or both. In this, as with all things in the novel, there is a healthy balance between the narrative schools we are familiar with: it’s both random happenstance and fate, both magic and science, that allows these two people to come together and do something immense.
It is, to be truthful, one of the first straight romance plots I’ve read in years that I found natural and compelling and weird in the right ways. It feels honest and balanced between the roles and expectations each character has based on gender and desire and performance. While in some ways both Laurence and Patricia are both commentaries or plays on stereotypes—the boy nerd, the girl witch—they are also very well developed equally stupid about different things, and fully realized as humans. It’s refreshing.
As a whole, All the Birds in the Sky is a stellar in-genre debut novel (though it isn’t Anders’s first novel). It’s smart and simple at once, doing familiar things in inventive ways with sharp prose and great characters. I’ve been thoroughly pleased to read it, and I think it speaks specifically to issues in our own world and lives that many people will find cogent. Definitely both thumbs up and a hearty recommendation from me, here.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.