MARCH 29, 2016
“IF YOU WERE CRAZY,” a supercomputer on the verge of sentience asks a young girl who’s pretty sure that she’s a witch, “How would you know you were crazy?” She has no conclusive answer. Like so much else in Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky, the question of sanity is relative, not absolute.
All the Birds in the Sky is a genre-crossing sci-fi, fantasy, literary romance that pulses with energy. Anders seamlessly combines the futuristic vision of William Gibson with a fantastic, Terry Pratchett–like playfulness. The book presents a richly imagined magical world, an empathetic understanding of what it feels like to grow up an outsider, and a loving vision of a pre-apocalyptic near-future in San Francisco, the city where Anders lives and works. This book is being billed as her “debut novel for adults,” although she’s written one YA novel, lots of shorter fiction (over 100 stories, according to her official bio), and countless blog entries and essays as the founder and editor of io9, the sci-fi arm of Gawker Media.
Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a mad scientist, are children at the novel’s outset, and are just beginning to explore their capabilities. Both are social outcasts with uncomfortable relationships with their families. Their friendship begins as a transaction meant to keep Laurence from having to return to wilderness camp, but they quickly become each other’s only allies. Anders writes about the indignities of adolescence with gentle, empathetic humor. “At last he understood what all those old horror stories meant when they talked about an eldritch dread, creeping into your very soul. That was how Laurence felt, listening to his mother attempt to talk to him about girls.”
It’s not just the stifling mortification of talking about dating with a parent: the push for conformity in the children’s community is oppressive to everyone in it. The most popular boy in school has body image issues; an assassin serving as a guidance counselor (a favorite of the student body at large) is numbed by the mindlessness of the American educational system. Patricia in particular is subjected to a campaign that’s Carrie-like in its cruelty. It’s made worse by the fact that it’s undertaken by a gaslighting authority figure, who ultimately drives both children from their homes in attempt to prevent his hallucinatory but perhaps prophetic vision that one day they will bring about the end of the world.
We catch up with Laurence and Patricia again later, as grown-ups, in San Francisco. The Harry Potter years are only visited through flashback. In the meantime, Patricia has gone to magic school, while Laurence went to MIT. He’s become the golden boy figurehead employee for a visionary tech entrepreneur, and Patricia is doing secret witchy things around the city (and maintaining multiple day jobs to pay rent). Anders keeps the focus on the solipsistic SF tech scene, but even the tech bubble isn’t impervious to signs that the world outside is changing. The large-scale disasters, both natural and manmade, that are happening with increasing frequency across the rest of the world may not have reached the West Coast yet, but their effects are impossible to avoid. A lame party is made even more of a bummer by the fact that “everybody felt guilty about drinking soju after what happened in Korea.” The party must go on, though, even if the dubthrash DJ was making “everybody’s eardrums bleed with the most dreary shit imaginable,” and thank god it does, because this is where Patricia and Laurence meet again.
The tech world and the magic world are set up as opposing ideological forces, with institutional goals that will inevitably butt up against each other. Both factions are powerful and well intentioned; both have plans that are myopic and could have devastating consequences. Narratively, both forces function the same way. The magical mechanism that allows one character to turn into a bird is explained no more clearly than the scientific process that allows another character to build a two-second time machine. The explanation isn’t necessary, though. What’s more important is how Patricia and Laurence use their respective powers, and the questions such uses raise. Are ethics universal or situational? What if you’re sure you’re right, but someone else is too?
As Patricia and Laurence’s orbits begin to intersect more and more frequently, and the world gets closer and closer to the brink of destruction, it becomes clear that there could be some truth to the horrible destiny foreseen by that long-ago assassin. Which means that they have to face even tougher questions. When it comes to saving the world, what’s worth sacrificing, and what’s worth saving? How do you even know if it’s actually the end of the world? As one character asks, “What if we’re only eighty percent sure it’s the apocalypse?” There are no easy answers; in fact there may be no answers at all.
No single Big Bad exists in All the Birds in the Sky, no clear force of evil that must be defeated. Even the worst characters are well intentioned, if destructive, and the best solutions tend to wreak at least as much havoc as the problems they are intended to solve. This refusal of easy fixes is one of the book’s greatest strengths. In showing humans as both incredibly powerful and incredibly inconsequential, it assumes the best of its readers, and the best of its characters. Humans do very bad things, to be sure, with great regularity, but there is no single individual who can change the course of history. “History is a tidal wave,” another character says. “You can’t swim against a tidal wave.” In the book, as in life, the metaphor may or may not be accurate.
In an interview with Wired, Anders shared a few of her major literary and cultural influences (from Piers Plowman to Doris Lessing), but myriad others season the book — through both explicit allusions and subtler cues too numerous to count. Pop culture references pepper the text. At one point, one of the protagonists deflects a question with the quick answer: “Dimensional transcendentalism,” to which the frustrated questioner responds, “You just stole that from Doctor Who. This is not a joke, this is serious.” In one brief passage, a self-fashioned superhero (although she does not call herself that) intervenes in the life of a poet who seems straight out of the pages of Armistead Maupin; in another she intervenes in an assault reminiscent of a Lidia Yuknavitch essay. Fairy tale tropes are turned on their heads to wonderful effect. The characters doing the saving and the sacrificing aren’t whom you’d expect, and they’re not sacrificing what you’d think. Gender roles are inverted; magic interventions shape science in ways that can’t be explained; birds meet and tweet endlessly to each other about parliamentary points and arcane inquiries.
Every review I’ve read has identified different influences, from Daniel Pinkwater to Lev Grossman to Dave Eggers and beyond. They’re all correct, which is not to say the book’s derivative, because it’s not. Anders makes the old brand new again, synthesizing something lovely and urgent from all of these disparate sources. Familiar elements form the foundation of the story, but the way that they’re used yields the most joyful apocalypse novel I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The world of All the Birds in the Sky is as rich and wonderful as it is cruel, and even as situations spiral out of the characters’ control, there’s a fundamental optimism about humanity at the heart of the book.
As the questions of apocalypse become too urgent to ignore, Patricia and Laurence must find answers, not necessarily the right answers, but answers. It’s an impossible, divisive task. Anders writes gorgeous, exciting prose, and the moral and narrative complexity she’s set up in All the Birds in the Sky carries all the way through its ambitious, heartbreaking, hopeful ending. This book has been tremendously well received, and will most likely earn itself a place on the shelf among all its venerable influencers as a new addition to the canon. I don’t want to overhype anything; it’s probably due for a takedown, just to compensate for all the buzz. That won’t come from me, though.