All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, is a likeable book. The writing is fluent, filled with grace notes, witty observations and jokes that poke fun, but gently, at certain subcultures and stereotypes — mostly, the ones we all enjoy mocking from time to time.
Furthermore, in her Afterword, Anders says that if you don’t understand the story, she will come to your house and “act the whole thing out for you. Maybe with origami finger puppets.” So there’s that.
All the Birds in the Sky is one of small, newish category of fiction, one I don’t have a label for. It includes Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon. These are stories that give us protagonists who are more like avatars than people, who help us explore the impact of new technologies and fields of thought on everyday society. Maybe I would call them fables. They play an elaborate, inspired game of “what-if.” All the Birds in the Sky falls into a second category for me, a more personal one; it’s clearly a “San Francisco” book.
The story follows three principle characters, although one remains in the background for a large part of the story. Patricia and Laurence cautiously become friends in middle school. Both are outcasts and targeted by bullies. Patricia is a witch — at least, that’s what the birds who talk to her have told her. Laurence is a scientific genius. The two children come to the attention of a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins, who is committed to killing one or both of them in order to prevent a dreaded event called the Unravelling. Unfortunately for the assassin Theodolphus, his order forbids the killing of children. He still hangs around for quite a while, never quite menacing although certainly a nuisance. But he’s funny. (He is not the third character I mentioned.)
Years later, Patricia and Laurence meet again in San Francisco. Since the books starts somewhere on the East Coast, it’s not clear how they both end up San Francisco, except that this is a San Francisco book. Laurence is doing mad science for a visionary billionaire, and Patricia is a gothy, witchy do-gooder. The story follows each of the characters while in the background, one global catastrophe after another blossoms. It seems like the world is unravelling — or is it Unravelling? Soon it’s clear that the goals of the witches are at odds with the goals of the scientists.
Navigating the plot of All the Birds in the Sky is like studying a set of train tracks. You have a pretty good idea of where it’s going, and you’re not wrong. The pacing of the early part of the book is episodic, more like short fiction pieces woven together, but by the time we reach San Francisco it smooths out and becomes novel-like.
I used the word “avatars” earlier in the review to describe the characters. Simplistic motivations and a slightly distant narrative tone all direct us to relate to Patricia and Laurence as avatars for their respective premises. Supporting characters are slightly more than types, given tags to describe them (the popular mean girls, the manipulative older sister), but they are great tags. Patricia’s mother is someone who “got mad for a living and was really good at it.” Other parents are fearful, compliant losers or emotionally distant over-achievers. They only exist to show that Laurence and Patricia have no emotional support. The third character has a very different story arc, and I liked it the best; that character fades into the background for a large part of the story.
For introverts who were ostracized and bullied, Laurence and Patricia are eager to trust the wrong person whenever the plot requires it, which adds to the “avatar” feeling.
The story tilts the playing field unashamedly in Patricia’s favor, not just philosophically. Patricia is a “better person” than Laurence. This led to a paradox; while Patricia is a sweet, loyal, caring character, Laurence is selfish, fearful, cocky and insecure at the same time — in other words, a venial, and more realistic, human being, a better character, even when the book puts him in the wrong. I didn’t mind the story’s philosophical tilt, but I certainly noticed it.
It sounds as if I didn’t like the book. I did, though. I liked the ideas at play here, and I loved the great descriptions and one-liners, like the assassin Theodolphus fighting his desire for ice cream:
Theodolphus had not eaten ice cream since the poisoning at the mall, and he didn’t deserve any now. Ice cream was for assassins who finished their targets.
Laurence and his girlfriend go out to dinner;
… they were stuck sitting at one of the outside tables at the fancy pizza place, with nothing but a heat lamp and three meat-balls to insulate them from the fog until their pizza arrived.
San Francisco is a small, storied, quirky city which is currently incarnated as the Silicon Valley’s personal theme park, and it’s this incarnation that Anders extolls and punctures at the same time. The story makes fun of the city with its UFO parties, Slow Food movement, and other trends, while at the same time acknowledging that it’s the only place in the world to be. The city is the only place where science and magic ever have a shot at coexistence, even if it’s only a shot. Anders shares the Telegraph Hill parrots with the reader, and provides some views (such as the Noe Valley) that aren’t common in San Francisco fiction. She adds pop-culture in-jokes, like the name of a coffee house Laurence and Patricia visit. San Francisco is both a magic circle and a shiny toy, and Anders sculpts that perfectly.
I never believed that any of the three main characters were at risk, although people around them do die. The second love story that unfolds at the end (I’m trying to avoid spoilers) was interesting, resolved well, and delighted me. Patricia and Laurence are avatars, but they’re likeable avatars. The novel has some pacing problems, and in places the hand-waving was a bit too cavalier, but even with the emotional distance I loved the prose and the ideas here. I already know several people I will recommend this book to, because they have had these very discussions and struggled with these dilemmas. All the Birds in the Sky is a book of ideas that is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
On a related note, I think we should start a Twitter campaign to request that Anders act out scenes from the book with finger puppets. She could put it up on YouTube. Who’s with me?
Marion and I are aligned on this one — I liked All the Birds in the Sky, but I didn’t love it. It is undoubtedly well-written and for the most part well-crafted (though there are pacing issues). What it comes down to is that combination of sci-fi, witches, and San-Fran cool — it’s a cocktail that some will go nuts for and others, not so much.
Though I fall into the latter category I can understand why All the Birds in the Sky has been nominated for a 2017 Hugo for Best Novel. It’s sharp, witty, clever, and as Marion said, refuses to be pigeon-holed by genre. Fans of both sci-fi and the magic of witches and spells will find enjoyment in All the Birds in the Sky, and that’s no mean feat.
Stand-out elements include the way Anders cleverly pokes fun at San-Francisco and the lives of the young tech-elite. At times (the right times) Laurence, who slips so easily into that world, is rather irritating; at others there’s a guilty pleasure in his cockiness, a feeling exacerbated by his troubled childhood. As Marion said, he is an interesting, flawed character.
As far as Patricia is concerned the most interesting element to her story is the difficulty she faces obeying the rules of the magical establishment and in particular the trouble she has sticking to concept of “aggrandizement”. Aggrandizement means Patricia cannot simply wander the streets, magically curing everyone and anyone; she has to learn that her actions can have consequences and not all of them good. The moral here is “don’t play God”. It’s about coming to terms with the fact there is no magic pill that can save the world. The idea adds an interesting philosophical and intellectual dilemma to Patricia’s magical abilities.
The most significant issues are those of connection and, more generally, of mood. As Marion said, there is a distant feel to the telling and, though the characters are likeable, it’s hard to feel much concern for them. Patricia’s story in particular feels depressing and suffers from a drop-off in pace in the second half. There’s a fair amount of gloominess in the book as a whole, born from the fact the characters never shed their troubled childhoods. It’s a gloominess that feels intentional but also contributes to the pacing issue.
One thing’s for sure though — All the Birds in the Sky is certainly ripe for discussion. I will look on with interest at its performance at the Hugos.
I think you’ve got a winning idea there Marion. Nice review–thanks!
I think we’ll see a lot of discussion about this book, particularly closer to award time.
I liked this much more than the reviewer did and gave it a five-star review on Amazon and Goodreads. Oh, and the story follows three principal characters, not three principle characters.
Ben, thanks for that clarification! I wasn’t sure and didn’t look it up.
I’ll go check out your Amazon review. I think the book will be getting a lot of attention and buzz.