SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Original Book Reviews, Recommendations and Discussions

The magic didn’t work for me – All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, originally published: January 26, 2016,
publisher: Tor Books, 320 pp. hardcover

If I can use one term to describe All the Birds in the Sky it would be “uneven”: uneven in tone – sometimes terse, sometimes gaspingly emotional; uneven in language use – careless, even jocular, in places, verbose or poetic in others; uneven in characterization – sometimes complex, sometimes flat, and uneven in the settings – like a mashup of the villages of Midsummer Murders, “Hogwarts” in Harry Potter and the house of the “Pied Piper” team in the TV series Silicon Valley. This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. In preparation for attending the event I am working through the shortlisted works to rank them. So this was No. 2. The premise makes it very difficult to fit to the Science Fiction (SF) genre. It concerns witches, wizards and magic pitted against teenaged and mid-twenties-year old technology whizzes, with some SF ideas mixed in. Considering that one half of the protagonists spend their lives in computer labs and workrooms, it can be said to have elements of “Lab[oratory] Lit[erature]”.

I had a problem making sense of the novel, because, as I said, it so patchy and uneven. In it, a child science prodigy, “Laurence”, who is a friend of a naturist-type of girl, “Patricia”, who can speak to birds and fly. Laurence goes on to become a maverick scientist and inventor, starting with a two-second time machine, and progressing to a wormhole-generating machine. After having studied at an academy of magic, Patricia goes on to become a witch with the power to talk to birds, fly, heal, curse, and do spells.

With reference to the title, she can talk to birds, and does so throughout the story. The birds frequently act like Greek Oracles, chirping, “it’s too late!” when the action hots up, but only to Patricia, who is on the side of nature, being a witch. Patricia and Laurence, luckily, grow up to be powerful and good-looking, but are warned by all and sundry that they will be the cause of the destruction of Earth, an event referred to vaguely as the “Singularity”.

Not very futuristic

Fans will probably say it is daring to combine Fantasy and SF, and it is, but I do not think it is very well done. Specifically, Anders does not do well with the descriptions or conceptualization of the futuristic aspects of Earth. She describes the sad state of the world, pollution, war, diseases and so on, but I got the impression that she wasn’t quite clear on the technologies and machines she writes about. There’s a lot of generalization, vagueness and skipping over details. In the Acknowledgements she addresses “you guys” – the readers, and says:

“If there was stuff [sic!] that didn’t make sense to you or seemed too random, just e-mail me and I’ll come to your house and act the whole thing out for you. Maybe with origami finger puppets.”

So, she knew that all might not be clear from the get-go, but origami finger puppets won’t help.

The Science Fiction elements include near-future war and disaster scenarios, superstorms, AIs, oil and gas drilling, some Physics and Biology (birds and trees). Every one of these facets – from the partial destruction of Earth, to the ultimate engine of destruction – is kind of half-cooked. I found the America-centredness of this irritating. It would of course be Americans who try to build a space-travelling machine, and who save the world. In the meantime, back at the ranch, the crisis is described as a world-wide apocalypse, not from a meteor impact but a flood (?!). To be sure the other nations would have had something to do with sorting out the mega-disaster.

Cop-out ending

What I found most annoying is the extreme cop-out of the ending:- Not only does a pigeon lead Laurence and Patricia to an all-knowing ancient talking tree, but their hand-held, drop-shaped AI called “Peregrine” (note the bird name – this is one of the “good” guys) that sounds like an old-school palm pilot (‘cause it fits in your palm and organizes your life) bonds with a tree, and becomes the saviour of the world. The AI and the tree “find love” and together stop the doomsday-machine from destroying the world, and science and magic unite in word peace. Oy veh.

The idea of the all-wise, protecting tree is not new – though it fits with the worldview of the character “Patricia” and probably the worldview of the author as well. The “world tree” is a motif present in several religions and mythologies, particularly Indo-European religions, Siberian religions, and Native American religions. It is represented as a colossal tree which supports the heavens, thereby connecting the heavens, the terrestrial world, and, through its roots, the underworld. It may also be strongly connected to the motif of the tree of life.

Finally, the two protagonists walk off down the yellow(ish) brick road like in the Wizard of Oz.

“The road leveled out and came to a grassy area, and beyond that they could glimpse the brightness of cement and stucco basking at noon. They both paused, facing each other at the threshold, wondering if they were ready to face whatever the world would look like now. Laurence hefted his phone and typed a word: “indestructible.” He didn’t hit send or anything, just kept the word floating at the top of the rectangle screen. She saw it and nodded and felt a surge of warmth somewhere. Under the flat of her sternum, somewhere around there. She reached out and touched that place on Laurence’s chest, with two fingers and a thumb. “Indestructible,” she said aloud, almost laughing. They leaned in and kissed, dry lips just brushing together, slow, speak ing volumes. Then Laurence took Patricia’s arm and they led each other out into the brand-new city.” (p. 315, e-book)

Tension and climax

Whatever disasters happen, happen from one paragraph to the next – very little buildup, justification or atmosphere: one minute people are making out, the next minute one gets a phone call to say oh, the world has just ended and oops, sorry, your parents are dead, gotta go.

Another example: Patricia, with her bare hands, rips out a crucial component and so stops a doomsday machine called the “Total Destruction Solution” which “bestrode Mission Street “. This machine is so powerful it kills everything its controller shoots at, and causes earthquakes with an “antigravity beam”. Patricia gets fried to a crisp with her face burned off. And then, with one touch, she is back from the dead and completely healed by a handy witch. Convenient but implausible.

The logic of the whole thing falls over when you read the description of this “Total Destruction Solution” – you need a lot of suspension of disbelief to relax and enjoy this read and switch off your brain, and I did not have enough:

“Isobel geeked out about the design challenges of creating the T.D.S.: They needed to cram as much armament as possible into the main chassis, without creating something too top-heavy. They wanted something amphibious and all-terrain, with omnidirectional movement and the ability to take out multiple targets at once. Like every designer of cool hardware, Tanaa wound up reaching for shapes from nature: the segmented bodies of the major arthropods, the shock-absorbing properties of a hedgehog’s quills, the stabilizing tail, the six insectoid legs, the multi-sectioned carapace, and so on. The cockpit was spacious enough for two people, with manual controls that were redundant so long as you had someone connected to the brain/computer interface. (Milton had gotten the laparoscopic operation not long earlier.) The result was perhaps a bit busy, but it moved with a sleekness, and when it came time to open up with the five SAMs, the seven industrial lasers, the front and rear napalm launchers—and the crown jewel, the antigravity cannon—the T.D.S. would dance. “ (p. 297)

Yes, she actually uses the words “geeked out” and “cool”. Why the machine would necessarily have to look like an insect, I don’t know.

Witches vs. techies, nature vs. machines

The witches and wizards pit an event or intervention against the scientists and techies that I couldn’t figure out at all. It’s called “the Unraveling”. (Yes, there is the Singularity, and then there is the Unraveling.) And it’s some kind of bad head trip. “The desperate fear of people she’d experienced in the Unraveling still clung to Patricia, and she could still see her self fleeing, never talking to another soul, running lonely. She couldn’t picture herself talking to Laurence. “ (p. 280) Why exactly the Unraveling is so bad, other than that people are horrible to Patricia and each other, like stalking vampires, is unclear. The weird thing is that the Unraveling is the weapon of the witches, and it is as bad as the weapon of the scientists, the “T.D.S.” referred to above.

“‘This is the beginning of something, not the end of it,’ said Kawashima [a wizard], coming closer as well and actually hugging her. He never hugged anybody. ‘Or rather, it’s the end of one thing and the beginning of something else. This country will be destabilized, with New York and D.C. gone, and other cities damaged. There will be refugees, in camps. Which means more disease. The chaos and starvation will worsen. There will be more wars, and worse wars. Wars like nobody has ever seen. God forbid we have to resort to the Unraveling.’ ‘When the whole world turns chaotic, we must be the better part of chaos,’ said Ernesto [another wizard]. Patricia couldn’t find it in herself to cry anymore.” (p. 229)

Despite the tension between the witches/wizards and the techies/geeks, the lead characters and their friends all identify as nerds, outcasts, outsiders or loners, with huge amounts of agonized internal conflict, from bullying in school, to daddy-issues to dating problems. (It made me suspect that I may well be in the wrong reader demographic for this novel.) So while they’re in opposite camps, they have the same issues. While Patricia and Laurence both date other people, even obsessively, like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet the star-crossed outsiders eventually get together. Anders has said that she identifies with outsider characters:

“Anders’ first love is science fiction, and she says that her identification as a transgender woman gives her insight into her genre of choice. ‘I think that, in general, anyone who writes science fiction and fantasy is going to be interested in stories about outsiders of various sorts,” she says. “There has been this great trend in science fiction and fantasy where various types of outsiders have been put in more central roles in the genre, which I think is important, because part of what science fiction is about is discovery, discovering things that are new and different. Often, the people who make the most interesting discoveries are not sitting most comfortably in the mainstream.” (Interview by Michael Berry in SF Weekly)

It has to be said that some of the characters, like the wizard in the bookshop who sprouts plants and turns green whenever he leaves the premises, are interesting. But again the author failed to answer the unspoken question: Why? Regardless of the good intention of placing outsider types in central roles, I found the novel as a whole inconsistent, unconvincing and just not very interesting. The character development is predictable and at the same time, patronizing. Patricia, for instance, is depicted as a slightly bonkers nerd who turns into Wonder Woman – complete with a hot bod, self-confidence, magnetism, super strength and sex appeal. It would have been more interesting to keep her as she is, a kooky bird-lover, and still have her save the world.

About halfway through, I stopped trying to figure out if there was anything more to it, other than anti-global warming/tree-hugging/love-conquers-all messages. These are underscored by the epigraph of the novel: “In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.” – George Dyson, Darwin Among the Machines

Note that the quote is actually from the foreword of Dyson’s work: Darwin Among The Machines: The Evolution Of Global Intelligence, 1997. And the quote is not from Charles Darwin, but from George Dyson, who prefaces that quote with “I have attempted in my own life and in this book, to reconcile a love of nature with an affection for machines.” He explains that he favours neither nature nor machines,  and in the book, specifically focuses on the past rather than the future.

The riddle of the birds

The novel contains a semi-philosophical riddle that the birds ask Patricia, and that she has to solve before she can get access to the Tree of Life, save the world, and avoid being killed. It is like the unanswerable riddle put to travellers by the mythological Sphinx that was said to have guarded the entrance to the ancient Greek city of Thebes. The riddle is: “Is a tree red?”. Not exactly deep. On second thought, it’s an Ice-Cream Kōan. Either way, whether it’s a straight question or a pun, the answer is yes. What Patricia answers, you can read for yourself. But it’s an unnecessary “Only-smart-people-may-pass” trope, as far as I’m concerned.

Is a tree red? Well, which way do you want to angle the question?

Mundane SF

There is a subcategory of SF called Mundane SF – not mundane as in boring, mundane as in normal or everyday. These novels are set in the future, but on earth, with no interstellar travel or other planets, since, “…the genre’s writers believe that warp drives, worm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light travel are scientific fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future. According to them, unfounded speculation about interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with planets as hospitable to life as Earth, which encourages a wasteful attitude to the abundance on Earth.”

In the novel, Laurence’s team try to build a wormhole-generator to get humanity off Earth, but Patricia destroys it – again, single-handedly. Thus the usual SF ingredients are either shown to be unsuccessful or are not mentioned at all. Even when Laurence tries out his machine and someone is “teleported” into another world, it is Patricia who uses secretive good magic to get her back. There’s definitely some Mundane SF in here.

The mixture of Fantasy and SF simply did not work for me. Anders is a popular and award-winning author – and apparently she frequently does this genre-mixing. In a 2014 interview with Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, Anders spoke about “her love for genre mash-ups, seeing them as a way to inject ‘new blood’ into old storylines in order to avoid the pitfalls of well-used tropes”. She did not entirely avoid tropes in the novel. Anders has fans that are mad keen about her writing. Nevertheless this novel did nothing to encourage me to read the rest of what she has written. It has its merits, but it just wasn’t for me.

About the author

SUMMARY OF REVIEW

  • Mix of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
  • Not quite successful mash-up.
  • Uneven in tone, pace, plot and characterization.
  • Perhaps meant for younger readers or teenagers.
  • Both protagonists are outsider types.
  • Contains quite a few tropes or clichéd literary devices.
  • Possibly written with an anti-global warming or environmental message; ref. the epigraph and plot climax.

Charlie Jane Anders, 2015, from Tor.com.

Anders is an American writer, commentator and events organizer. She has written several novels and is the publisher of other magazine, the “magazine of pop culture and politics for the new outcasts”. Before writing fiction full-time, she was for many years an editor of the extraordinarily popular science fiction and fantasy site io9.com. Her debut novel, the mainstream Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edmund White Award. In 2005, she received the Lambda Literary Award for work in the transgender category, and in 2009, the Emperor Norton Award. Her 2011 novelette Six Months, Three Days won the 2012 Hugo and was nominated for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon Awards. Her 2016 novel All the Birds in the Sky was listed No. 5 on Time magazine’s “Top 10 Novels” of 2016, won the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2017 Crawford Award, and is a finalist for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 2017 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. So there you go – hugely successful and admired and a leading light in SF. No doubt one voice of dissent amongst the screaming hordes of adoring fans will made absolutely nada difference.

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