There are two ways, in fiction, to introduce something new and different to a reader; in style or in content. A creator, someone with a story to tell, and who wants to be the difference to everything else out there in a crowded speculative fiction market, must make a choice. The most accessible way to introduce something new and different is to write a traditional prose story, but with new and engaging content.
There’s nothing particularly new about a clash of ideologies within a narrative, but mash up some genres and critique binary thinking and you have All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Books and stories that defy labelling and mess with traditional boundaries of genre are becoming, thankfully, a lot more common. Which is probably an issue for booksellers, but for me, I can’t get enough. Over recent years I’ve praised the likes of Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson (science fiction and Arabic mythology), the Dog-Faced Gods series by Sarah Pinborough (noir crime fantasy) and The Shining Girls and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (fantasy crime time travel and magical science fiction respectively). Into this mix comes the glorious All the birds in the sky.
Charlie Jane Anders is the editor-in-chief of popular science fiction and all-things-geeky website i09. All the birds in the sky is her debut novel, having previously had short fiction published on Tor.com and Strange Horizon. She has also been a juror for awards panels including the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and for the Lambda Literary Awards. She is known to identify as a trans woman. All the birds in the sky is essentially a story about binary concepts and at first glance is pretty much black and white within its tropes: the protagonists are Patricia, a witch who as an affiliation with nature, and Laurence, a scientist who doesn’t. Woman, man, magic, science. If this was all the book was – a traditional science versus nature, man versus woman tale, it wouldn’t have the emotional wallop and interesting genre-blending insights that it does. It would have also descended, possibly, into a saviour or ‘the one’ theme, which it thankfully avoids.
Patricia is introduced to the reader when she is six years old. She is suffering a little from younger sister syndrome. An experience with a wounded bird brings her to a Parliament of Birds and a Tree. There is a mysterious question that she must answer in order to become a witch: Is a tree red? This question comes up at significant periods in the book. Ignorantly, I kept imagining it would be something to do with perception and it should be read, and therefore when it is dead and made into a book. I was delighted at the reveal. Meanwhile Laurence is a child-genius who builds a two-second time machine which helps avoids his bullies but has little else of merit. He is stifled by his parents, so runs off to a rocket launch where he meets Isobel and Milton, both of whom would play important roles in his life. Patricia and Laurence meet during adolescence at school. They are both having a rough time of it. They become friends, almost through necessity. They find out each other’s secrets, but Laurence especially, has a problem dealing with Patricia’s magic. Laurence, on the other hand, has been building a potential AI and it is Patricia who has a significant part to play. School days, in the book, aren’t given too many pages here, which I thought was a clever move. This is no Harry Potter, after all. Our protagonists are estranged and in their early adult life now.
Patricia is coming to terms with her powers and helping people, while being chided by her peers for being too aggrandising. Laurence has cast aside the AI project and is working with a group of equally genius scientists in a think tank. Meanwhile, the world is heading for oblivion. It is with this backdrop that most of the narrative unfolds. The magician and the scientist exist in different worlds, but they keep clashing and drifting apart, like waves on a beach. There are misunderstandings and reconciliations, relationships with other people and with each other. A forgotten plot point comes back to the fore, and you realise it was always there, just skilfully hidden. Patricia and Laurence are both outsiders who are drawn together through the pull of something much bigger than defined boundaries. They are mistrustful of each other’s natures but their feelings outweigh that mistrust. They both make plenty of mistakes and turn one way when they should have kept going straight on. And all the while, the birds are telling Patricia that it’s too late.
There are binary ideas throughout the book. For example, within the opposing camps, there are divides into two. In the magic camp, there are the Tricksters and the Healers – even to the point of having their own versions of Hogworts. The science types are less polarised, although the factions move between saving humanity or destroying it. There is no good versus evil or right versus wrong here. Females aren’t better than males – Patricia and her clan don’t think to ask an important question which as devastating consequences on Laurence. Males aren’t better than females. Laurence messes up a perfectly fine relationship due to his own insecurities. Both magic and science have flaws. And so they should. There is never an easy solution, never a clear route to success.
Charlie Jane Anders’ writing makes this book so very accessible. It is often said that it is very difficult to make something look easy. Anders’ previous experience in writing and living as transgender in a geek work might be the effort that makes this book a joy to read. My only real criticism is that this is very much a book of the moment. It does read, sometimes, as an ‘issue-of-the-day’ book, exemplified by the use of terms such as mansplaining. If some words and ideas fail to establish themselves beyond the zeitgeist, it could date the book quickly. The dialogue occasionally straddles the faddish and the genius. When it works, it is very naturalistic and honest, especially in the relationship scenes. Other times it is witty, which kinds of covers up some clunky exposition about wormholes and doomsday machines and such like. Which brings me to the world building. Considering that the world is going to an environmental and political hell-in-a-handbasket and considering that there are numerous complex muddy characters, there’s a significant lack of exposition. Characters don’t explain everything, either. When Patricia and Laurence are talking about dimensions, they both agree it is like the concept of Plato’s Cave. Anders doesn’t feel the need to explain that to the reader. She has faith in them that the either know, or they’ll go and look it up. This is common throughout. Certainly, there are hardly any info-dumps. Another one of the reasons why this book works. The superstorm (the main subtext is climate change) has devastating effects, for example, but Anders doesn’t tell us from a distance. It impacts characters’ lives, not just at the moment, but later in the book too.
Laurence makes a sacrifice that reminded me a little of Will and Lyra make at the conclusion of His Dark Materials. This passage elevates All the birds in the sky beyond just an interesting and successful endeavour in genre-busting speculative fiction, and into the realms of simply great storytelling. It’s what tugs on the heartstrings and moves the story beyond a clever entertainment. This book, it turns out then, isn’t about boy meets girl or magic versus science. It is not a fantasy; not a science fiction. It is a genre label-free zone. And it’s about all the messy, muddy colours that human lives actually are, and the natural if not vital conflicts within relationships.