May 08 2017

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

One of the things I particularly liked about All the Birds in the Sky is how Charlie Jane Anders chose to break up the story. It’s a two-sided, save-the-world story, and all of the basics are there: interesting leads, good counterparts, quick pacing, fun dialog, and so forth. She’s strong enough on the essentials even in her debut novel that it’s more interesting to talk about the more advanced parts of telling the story that she has chosen.

The setup: Patricia is a witch; her childhood friend Laurence is a scientific genius. They are very close in middle school (the story is set in the US), but drift apart and are then dramatically separated. They meet again as young adults, advanced in their respective realms, as the world is starting to get badly out of joint. They are still drawn to one another, but find themselves on opposite sides of attempts to prevent catastrophe.

That bare summary does not do justice to the wry humor and the warmth with which Anders tells their stories. Part of it is where she chooses to put major breaks in the narrative. Book one introduces each of them and brings them together briefly, with chapters set when they are small children. Patricia discovers that she can talk to animals, and the birds take her to a Parliament of Birds that meets at a great Tree in the deepest part of the forest. Laurence builds a time machine that can jump two seconds ahead in the future, and runs away to MIT where there’s a rocket launch and he discovers a group of students who followed the same schematics he did to build their own two-second time machines.

Each of them has had a glimpse of their place in the world, but it is only a view. Patricia comes back from the woods and doesn’t hear from the animal world again for years, despite her best efforts. Laurence’s parents pick him up from MIT and drive him back home, all the while lecturing him on how life is all about responsibility not adventure. In the back seat, he doesn’t hear a word as he zips through a newly acquired copy of Have Spacesuit — Will Travel.

Anders picks up the story when her protagonists are in middle school. They are the class weirdos and, like unhappy families, each weird in their own way. At first, they try to go separate ways, hoping the beasts of middle school will prey on the other. By the time they are reluctant allies and almost friends, another of the book’s charms shows up: the weirdness that is almost but not quite too much. The two are underneath an escalator at a mall, making a game of guessing what the people are like when they can only see feet and ankles going by.

“That lady in the white sneakers is an acrobat. And a spy,” Patricia said. “She travels around the world, doing performances and planting cameras in top-secret buildings. She can sneak in anywhere because she’s a contortionist as well as an acrobat.”
A man in cowboy boots and black jeans came past, and Laurence said this was a rodeo champion who had been challenged to a Dance Dance Revolution showdown against the world’s best break-dancer and it was happening at this very mall. (p. 56)

The middle-school game continues until

The man in black slippers and worn gray socks was an assassin, said Patricia, a member of a secret society of trained killers who stalked their prey, looking for the perfect moment to strike and kill undetected. (p. 56)

They break off, saying how boring their own shoes are because their parents pick them out. Just a brief incident in establishing a friendship, except that Patricia was entirely correct about the man in the black slippers. Not only is he an assassin, he is there to kill the two of them thereby, he believes, saving the world from a future war between magic and science. Only his order has a prohibition against killing minors; he not only loses sight of his targets, he nearly dies of poisoning in a Cheesecake Factory because his order has taken offense at his actions.

I liked the melding of the random and the crucial — what if the assassin is right, and the two are really fated to destroy the world? — for how it interrupted the smooth progression of the story and injected some of the absurdity of life. Magic and tech are by no means domesticated in Anders’ version of our world, and some very strange stuff can happen.

Patricia is rescued from middle school’s horrors by an invitation to attend a school of magic, as one would expect from a book like this. And then Anders skips it entirely! I thought that was terrific. She goes straight to Patricia as a young woman as part of a company of magicians in San Francisco. Laurence is in the same city, a portrait of the young man as a tech genius, leading startups to change the world while still understanding very little about people. They cross paths, and don’t know quite what to do with each other.

About the only unsure step in the book is about two-thirds of the way through when Anders visibly sets the rest of the plot in motion. It was bound to happen; this is a plot-driven book rather than a character-driven one, and the inflection point had to come along sooner or later. I didn’t mind so much, it’s just that the rest of the book fits together so neatly that it was rare to see the gears become visible. The book’s model of politics is also about what one would expect to see from the point of view of Bay Area twentysomethings.

At any rate, disasters start piling up, and not only can neither technology nor magic set things aright, it looks as if the two strands are working in active opposition and making situations worse. Or maybe even bringing about ultimate disasters. The story hurtles to a conclusion, one that fits the characters and the world as Anders has shown it.

All the Birds in the Sky is a book of delights, large and small. The supporting cast is vivid, the protagonists interesting and full of life. Writing about it, I have jumped back in at several places and could have happily kept going all over again, even knowing where it goes.

This is the third Hugo finalist I have read this year, and also the third I have written about. It was nominated in the category of novel. The winner will be announced at Worldcon 75, August 2017 in Helsinki.

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