A review by Sam Sheikh
All the Birds in the Sky
By Charlie Jane Anders
Star-crossed, misfit lovers battling to save an increasingly apocalyptic world? Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky must be the most irresistible mashup since Voodoo Doughnuts’ Bacon Maple Bar.
Anders has written a quirky exploration of many popular modern themes in her latest novel. Like the aforementioned bacon confection, Anders’ novel is aimed at the same hipster, millennial, asymmetric side-parted pompadour, espresso-drinking individualists—with massive crossover appeal. The result is a young adult-ish, sci-fi-ish, fantasy-ish, alt-hist-ish, dystopian-ish, environmental-ish, romantic meringue that shrugs off categorization faster than you can say expelliarmus. Nonetheless it charms quite effortlessly.
We meet the protagonists as young children first discovering their peculiar talents. One day, while rescuing an injured sparrow, little Patricia Delphine learns she has the ability to communicate with animals. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, she finds a surreal world hidden in the woods as well as a Bird Parliament gathered in the Parliamentary Tree. She learns she is perhaps a witch and is confronted with the Endless Question. Stumped, she suddenly finds herself rescued by her father and back in the world of adults. Like the babies in the Mary Poppins books, Patricia loses her ability to speak with animals and begins to wonder if she had imagined everything.
Laurence Armstead’s talent lies with computers and technology. Unfortunately, his talent combined with his small size are magnets for bullies. He builds a two-second time machine that helps him avoid the worst of his daily torments. One day, he learns about a spaceship launch funded by tech millionaire Milton Dirth at MIT. There he meets like-minded adults who have also built two-second time machines. Thus, he takes the first steps toward his destiny.
Both Patricia and Laurence meet in junior high and agree to be allies in the unrelenting environment of bullies and popular kids. Unbeknownst to them, they have also become targets of one Theodolphus Rose, a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins masquerading as the school’s guidance counselor. Sent to a military reform school by his parents because of Rose’s sly manipulation, Laurence is rescued by both Patricia and an AI he created. Patricia, on the other hand, is forced to run away and is eventually recruited into Eltisley Maze, a school for witches and others with magical talents.
Their paths inevitably cross again, this time as adults. Patricia is a fully fledged witch seeking to right social and environmental wrongs. Laurence is working on projects funded by Dirth to create technological solutions to save mankind, such as a wormhole machine that can transport people to a more habitable world. Even as their lives pull closer and faster together like stars in a binary system, the different trajectories of their work pull them further apart.
As editor-in-chief of the sci-fi, fantasy, science, and tech blog io9, Anders has a unique vantage point at the intersection of geek and pop culture. She is also a sharp and astute observer of people and places. However, writing from the perspective of two young children, she is less sure-footed. The first third of her novel covers the familiar ground trodden by the Harry Potter series and its ilk: misfit, outcast, but uniquely talented kids terrorized by troglodyte family members and school mates.
It is in the latter two-thirds that the novel sparkles, when Patricia and Laurence re-emerge as young adults in a city surrounded by cozy cafes and book stores amid the homeless and the sick. The San Francisco landscape is lovingly rendered, rising to the prominence of a minor character. As Anders explores her young characters’ growing awareness, maturity, and place in the world, one is reminded of the one’s own youthful dilemmas, insecurities, and aspirations while navigating adulthood’s many contradictions and cognitive shifts. These are all themes no doubt familiar to millennials who, like her novel, resist being pigeonholed.
While the novel flirts with wide-ranging and heavy issues like environmental destruction, climate change, double-edged technologies, and the growth of AI, it ultimately shies away from making serious eye contact. The growing decay of the world is ominously conveyed with oblique references to far-off famines, epidemics, and natural disasters, as well as directly via a superstorm that destroys much of the east coast of the United States. Yet, Anders digs no deeper, presenting these issues as props to the main narrative of her two protagonists simultaneously being attracted and repelled as if magnets uncertain about their polarity.
All the Birds in the Sky shares many thematic elements with Gary Shteyngart’s magnificently realized Super Sad True Love Story. But their approaches couldn’t be more different. For example, Anders’ Caddy, a dangerously ubiquitous mobile device, is used to connect people and create intersections. In Shteyngart’s hands, a similar device called the äppärät becomes the symbol of growing alienation and loneliness amid false promises. Deep within Shteyngart’s novel lies a sadness that echoes Mark Twain: The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow. But Anders chooses a different, more youthful, if eccentric path. She has produced a work of fiction that is charming, playful, and at the end of the day, optimistic.