All the Birds in the Sky
by Charlie Jane Anders
Genre: Science Fiction and Fantasy
Published: January 2016
From Goodreads: A novel about the end of the world–and the beginning of our future
Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.
But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca of San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who’s working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world’s magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world’s ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together–to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.
A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse.
All the Birds in the Sky showed up on a few lists of sci-fi/fantasy books that I take notice of, namely the yearly NPR book concierge, a massive compilation of NPR’s favorite books of the year from just about every genre you can think of. It also won a little award called the Nebula Award, which is one of the top literary prizes in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy. Needless to say, I felt I could rest assured that this was going to be a good read.
I was not wrong.
I haven’t read many (if any) books that seek to meld the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Urban fantasies are set in modern times using contemporary technology, and while genres like steampunk often incorporate magic, I don’t think such stories are regarded as ‘science fiction’, which takes current ideas and technologies and imagines a future where said ideas and technologies have been developed and expanded into a future world. I can’t recall another book that has taken a near-future full of modern technology gone bonkers (there is, for example a company experimenting with things like anti-gravity that is founded by a character who seems very much like an older version of Elon Musk) and seamlessly incorporated magic. Perhaps the Shadowrun universe, which threw elves, dwarves, trolls, and other fairytale creatures into a cyberpunk version of Seattle in the late 2050s and 2060s, but that’s all I can think of.
And maybe I’m missing out on some classic book from 1985 that combines magic and futuristic science, but if it’s out there then it has a lot to live up to.
All the Birds in the Sky earned its awards and inclusion on multiple ‘Top 10 of 2016’ lists. Anders envisions a world not so different from the one we have– with its wars and its climate change and technology– and extrapolates forward to a world where a kid can make a time machine that lets you jump forward two seconds in time, and where that kid can grow up to imagine and build technology to take humanity to another planet.
But Anders also manages to create a world where magic (and a magic school) don’t feel out of place or tacked on. Like the Harry Potter world, the witches and wizards generally live outside of regular society and use their magic in surreptitious ways. When they step out of line, there are horrible consequences (like the ones that follow Patricia around after she makes a terrible mistake during her education). Anders’s magic system is an instinctive one without a bunch of clearly defined rules and I like that. It seems like magic based on Earth should be a little wild and wonky and not always be something that happens if you put the accent on the proper syllable and wave your hands around just-so.
The characters’ morality is a bit wonky, too. Like it tends to be in real life. There are points throughout where either Patricia or Laurence come off as terrible people, though you like them still and wish that Laurence would stop thinking he doesn’t deserve the life he has or that Patricia would let other people in. They do brilliant things, they do stupid things, and somehow you’re with them all the way. Even the ‘bad guys’ aren’t always so bad, and sometimes the ‘good guys’ do terrible things. But every character’s actions are backed up by the story. Even though Isobel is a secondary character, you know exactly why she does what she does.
These days it’s rare to find a standalone book that covers as much ground as All the Birds in the Sky. So many stories are broken up into series and even then, those stories don’t dare to dig as deep into the human psyche as Anders does, like they’re afraid of creating a story deep enough to sink a philosophy into lest their readers turn away from ingesting something hard. Anders, though, like most of her characters, isn’t afraid of what other people think. The philosophy of this story is as deep as it is wide, and the characters are multi-faceted and terribly human, and as cynical as it can sometimes be, more than a little hope shines out of All the Birds in the Sky.
“We don’t need better emotional communication from machines. We need people to have more empathy.”
-Charlie Jane Anders
All the Birds in the Sky