Title: All the Birds in the Sky
Plot Type: Absurdist SciFi/Fantasy
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—3; Humor—3
The novel is divided into four untitled "books," or sections, which can be summarized as follows:
Book 1: Two very different children have weird experiences that will determine their futures and change them forever. Patricia's experience involves a tree full of talking birds who inform her that she is a witch who must serve nature. Laurence's experiences focus on his his invention of a two-second time machine and his initial meeting with a group of rocket scientists determined to save the world. (This is the shortest of the three "books".)
Book 2: As middle school outcasts, Patricia and Laurence deal with extremely bad parenting, unrelenting bullying, and an evil (but hilarious) school counselor. Laurence and Patricia become friends and deal with their horrendous school and home situations, which get worse and worse, especially after Patricia is outed as a witch and Laurence continues to stand by her. Laurence is attempting to create artificial intelligence on a supercomputer called CH@NG3M3 that he hides in his bedroom closet "behind a protective layer of action figures," so he enlists Patricia's help in communicating with CH@NG3M3 in order to widen its worldview. Meanwhile, Patricia accidentally learns to fly.
Book 3: As 20-something millennials, Laurence and Patricia lead separate, very different, lives in hipster San Francisco where they eventually reignite their odd friendship: a well-trained witch dedicated to serving nature and a well-educated physicist devoted to science that tries to control (or even defy) nature. Each is surrounded by a group of singular characters who believe fanatically that they are the only ones who can save the world, which is getting more and more unstable due to climate change, disease, and wars. This section explores the vastly different approaches that the scientists and the witches are taking to deal with the approaching apocalypse, culminating in a violent magic vs. science confrontation. (This is the longest of the three "books.")
Book 4: The resolution and the epilogue—the aftermath of a major showdown scene that changes everything for the couple and for the world.As I read the first two sections (more than 1/3 of the book), I began to believe that I had stumbled into a YA novel because this part of the story deals with Laurence and Patricia's coming-of-age years. Because both are "different" in the eyes of their peers (as well as their teachers and parents), they bear the brunt of bullying from nearly everyone with whom they come in contact—except for each other. Some of these scenes are brutal in their graphic descriptions of schoolyard brutality, both physical and emotional. As we watch the two sets of parents and all of the educators contribute cruelly to Patricia and Laurence's daily horror-show experiences, the mood becomes hopelessly dark. Fortunately, Anders adds some humorous sparks to the narrative in the dialogues between Patricia and Laurence and in both characters' descriptions of their interactions with their families. For example, here is Laurence's reaction to a conversation with his mother: "At last he understood what all those old horror stories meant when they talked about an eldritch dread, creeping into your very soul. That was how Laurence felt, listening to his mother attempt to talk to him about girls." And here's how Patricia's parents punish her: "They locked Patricia in her room for a week, sliding food under her door. The bottom of the door tended to scrape off the top layer of whatever type of food it was. Like if it was a sandwich, the topmost piece of bread was taken away by the door. You don't really want to eat a sandwich after your door has had the first bite, but if you get hungry enough, you will."
It's a relief when the ice cream-loving, mean-but-incompetent villain, Theodolphus (a graduate of the Nameless Assassin School), turns up in chapter four to lighten things up with his darkly humorous narrative: "He went into the men's room at the Cheesecake Factory and meditated, but someone kept pounding on the door asking if he was about done in there." When one of his associates poisons his ice cream, he "wound up banned from the Cheesecake Factory for life. That tends to happen when you thrash around and foam at the month in a public place while groping in the crotch of your cargo pants for something [the antidote], which you then swallow in a single gulp." Theodolphus is probably the most entertaining character in the book, even though his appearances are relatively few and far between.
Then comes Book 3, where the plot picks up speed and complexity and the science-magic battlefield is laid out in detail. This section includes some hilarious spoofs of hipsterism, for example organic slow food hors d'oeuvres, "Secret breakfast…ice-cream [made with] cornflakes and whiskey," dubthrash/mashup DJ wars, trendy coffee shops, an art show "featuring finger paintings done by a twenty-eight-year-old woman, with subversively naive word balloons," and over-the-top consumer technology: "the living room that converted to a planetarium where the constellations changed shape to reflect the mood of the crowd."
Whereas the first two sections proceed along a straightforward, chronological path, the third suddenly begins to jump around in time, flashing back and forth between the past and the present to fill in the gaps in the lead characters' back-stories. Although this major structural change doesn't muddy the plot, it does slow down the pace. It's quite a shock when the story abruptly moves from a tense, personal scene between grown-up Laurence and Patricia to a new chapter that suddenly jumps back ten years or so to Patricia's witch-training days at Eltisley Maze—a chapter that describes a tragic incident that engendered deep feelings of guilt and shame that continue to overshadow Patricia's life.
I won't attempt to summarize the intricacies of the huge clash between the witches and the scientists and the effects of those battles on Laurence and Patricia's lives. Suffice it to say that the final chapters become much more woo-woo than the first three quarters of the book—and that's not a criticism, just a fact. What Anders does in this novel is to set a quirky pair of societal misfits into a world of reinvented sci-fi/fantasy tropes. Then, she adds some eccentric characters, connects them with a witty, darkly humorous narrative story line that exaggerates (or, perhaps, predicts) some horrific world problems, and comes up with two diametrically opposed solutions. It's a wild and crazy ride that pays off with an (oddly) sentimental ending. The primary weakness I found in the plot is that I was able to figure out the big technology mystery way back in the early chapters. Otherwise, this is a great read with well-developed characters and an inventive take on the coming apocalypse. If you are looking for a fresh fantasy with sympathetic characters and an offbeat premise, this one is definitely for you.
Click HERE to read the author's "About the Book" summary. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from All the Birds in the Sky on the book's Amazon.com page, where you can click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon. Click HERE to go to the publisher's web site for full-text links to chapters 1-4.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charlie Jane Anders is the editor in chief of io9.com and the organizer of the Writers With Drinks reading series. Her debut novel, Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was short-listed for the Edmund White Award. Her Tor.com story "Six Months, Three Days" won the 2012 Hugo Award and was subsequently picked up for development into an NBC television series. Her fiction has been published by McSweeney's, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, The Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets. Click HERE to read a more detailed version of her biography.