All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, May 9, 2017 (reprinted from SF Signal)

[Because All the Birds in the Sky is up for a Hugo award I thought I’d reprint my review from last year.]

“Too late, too late” the birds chorused.

Our futures are different in every generation. Back in 1966, my generation, the Baby Boomers, feared nuclear annihilation, hoped for colonies on Mars among other dreams, but nothing was certain, and we were surprised by the Internet and the Hubble Telescope. In 2016, I am concerned for the current generation, because their futures of climate catastrophe and mass extinctions do seem inevitable. How do young science fiction readers find hope in their futures? And what unexpected amazements awaits them?

Is science fiction ever about the future? Isn’t it always about the present? Science fiction represents the hopes and anxieties of each generation about their future. Science fiction set in the far future, like stories about interstellar travel, represents a kind of extreme optimism, whereas science fiction set in a middling distance of interplanetary travel, represents another kind of hope, a hope that we can build that future today if we only would. Science fiction set in the near future, often explores our fears more than our dreams. Writing near future SF requires juggling the hard cold facts of today against dreams for better tomorrows. Science fiction is each generation’s barometer measuring its faith in their futures.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane AndersAll the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders walks the razor’s edge of a very near future science fiction, confronting the obvious dooms while still offering hopes. Anders impressed me with her faith in our future. She accomplishes her task with a light touch, producing a novel that is a joy to read, yet is as deep as you’re willing to dig. I expect many to speed along in this story because of its shiny science fiction bits, but those who read slower, analyzing its fantasy and literary symbolism will find deeper concerns to contemplate.

At the surface of this novel is a love story between Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead that begins in their troubled childhood. Patricia survives by discovering the old religion of magic, while Laurence endures by mastering technology and science. They cope emotionally by sharing their misery, until outside forces split them up. Years later they rediscover one another only to find they have taken radically divergent philosophical paths. Their beginning reminds me a of Among Others by Jo Walton, and how children of genre find themselves by finding people like themselves.

All the Birds in the Sky is getting great reviews and buzz. How you read this book will determine how you label it, fantasy or science fiction, because the story apparently asks us to take sides. All the Birds in the Sky is a horse of many different colors, making it hard to categorize.

At first, I thought All the Birds in the Sky as three weddings: a marriage of science fiction and fantasy, a marriage of YA and adult, and a marriage of genre and literary. The novel makes us feel Cory Doctorow and J.K. Rowling should have tied the knot long ago. It also feels quite natural to bolt a YA section onto the beginning of a novel that’s meant for adults.

All the Birds in the Sky is a fast, fun read, but it’s about children being bullied by their parents and peers, who become adults during the climate apocalypse. How fun can that be? It is. The story does have talking animals and intelligent computers that are enchanting, and a serial killer assassin that feels like someone from The Grand Budapest Hotel, which for me was the only weird thing in the story that didn’t work (but I might change my mind in later readings).

Because All the Birds in the Sky is set in San Francisco, it makes me wonder if it’s a counter-culture novel too, but not the counter-cultures I knew, of Beatniks and Hippies, but Geek counter-culture from Silicon Valley startups and Maker subcultures. I also wonder if the novel isn’t a jab at Silicon Valley, who some San Franciscans believe is destroying their city. (Watch San Francisco 2.0 on HBO to see what I mean.)

All the Birds in the Sky are about two forces at war: magic and science. The novel begins with Patricia as a small child learning she can converse with birds. This is a very strange way to begin a science fiction novel, but Anders eventually makes it work for me. I totally get the Wired-Maker-SF side of this story because of my background. I just didn’t understand Patricia’s story at first, of talking animals, magic and secret covens of witches and wizards. I never played Dungeons and Dragons or read The Lord of the Rings. My only knowledge of magic comes from reading the Harry Potter books. The whole magic angle didn’t work for me until I reread some chapters. Then it clicked. I don’t believe Anders added magic to her story just to have a genre mashup, its integral to her message.

Good writers make their stories ambiguous, which allows readers to find their own meaning. However, that leaves us never knowing if we found the meaning, if there truly is one. But once I found a symbolic way to interpret the magic in All the Birds in the Sky, I was quite satisfied with this novel. I’d love to read how others interpreted the magic, but to do so in public would create spoilers.

I believe Anders is offering philosophical inspiration to young people. She knows they face grim futures. She wants young people to have faith they can solve the problems they’ve inherited. To understand how we must save ourselves is to understand how we must change ourselves. Any current science fiction written about the near future needs to involve ideas from books like This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. Not only is mankind the cause of our future doom, but so are our intellectual approaches to politics, economics, sociology, spirituality, psychology and self-expression.

Climate change is such a large bump in the road to the future that I’m not sure science fiction can ignore it. Anders knows that. To stop climate change requires changing ourselves, and how we interact with reality. There will be no wizards or scientists that can work that kind of magic, but Anders does offer hope in her ending. At least in the way I’ve read her story. I wonder what younger readers make of it. Birds and animals do have a say in Anders’ novel. Has Anders read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert? Not only is human society altering the biosphere and climate, but we’re killing off all our fellow species. If animals could talk, what would they say? My guess is Anders knows about such books, but doesn’t feel the need to weave their heaviness into her story. Both rising seas and dying animals are on the perimeters of her plot. The real conflict is between two people who love each other but embrace opposing philosophies. So the story becomes fantasy v. science fiction, but not really. Isn’t it nature v. science?

“Almost too late,” the pigeon said.

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