I’ve been following Charlie Jane Anders’ career for a couple of years now, and so I was super excited when I heard that she released a science fiction/fantasy novel. She was a writer and editor at i09, a science, science fiction, and pop culture news blog. Charlie Jane Anders is also the host of Writers with Drinks, a cross-genre reading series which you should definitely go to at least once if you like science fiction or literature and live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before All the Birds she published two short stories for Tor, a coming-of-age novel about a choir boy, and a humorous guide to casual crossdressing for men and transwomen (The Lazy Crossdresser).
Since i09 and Writers with Drinks are both crossgenre mashups, it’s not surprising that All the Birds in the Sky follows suit, sitting directly on the line between science fiction and fantasy and refusing to be pushed to either side. The structure of the story weaves the two threads of magic and technology together as well as is probably possible (the plot does have a couple of holes, I’ll get into those later). It’s about a girl named Patricia who’s a witch and a boy named Laurence who is a computer wizard. The story starts with the main characters in middle school, skips a few years, and then picks up their story again when they are young adults living and working in San Francisco.
One of my favorite things about this book is it gets middle school SO right. Well, at least from the perspective of a social outcast, with all the melancholy, isolation, fragile friendships, and social pressure that comes with that… but also the positive side of finding things that you love and learning more about yourself. Patricia can do some real magic and Laurence finds joy in invention, but both are lonely and misunderstood at school. The school-age chapters highlight how girls and boys are bullied differently, with boys often suffering physical abuse at the hands of their classmates and girls being excluded or vilified by their peers (the kids at school think Patricia’s a Satanist).
Their outsider/loner status persists and flavors their adult lives. Patricia is constantly being warned by the other witches to stop taking on too much by herself. She doesn’t socialize with the other witches and thus is considered suspect. Laurence is extremely successful in his work but his dating life suffers from his lingering sense of inferiority. The only person that each main character gets along with is each other (and even that is less than rock-solid). This leads to one of the major problems with the novel – there are a lot of side characters, but only one of them influences the plot and the rest are little more than scenery.
This example is meant to show Laurence being overwhelmed by a succession of party guests, but it is illustrative of the problem:
“A short older lady with wide glasses on a string, and black-and-white hair in an elaborate bun, started telling Laurence about the time her shoe had fallen in love with a sock that was much too big. A tall, handsome Japanese man in a suit, with a neat beard, asked Laurence questions about Milton’s finances, which he found himself answering without thinking. And a young person of indeterminate gender, with short spiky brown hair and gray hoodie, wanted to know who Laurence’s favorite superhero was.”
The side characters are quirky and I guess memorable, but the way they’re described as a collection of quirks doesn’t give you any sense of their personality. One thing I’m not fond of in Anders’s style is the tendency to describe action or dialogue in summary. It gives me the feeling that full immersion is too taxing on the attention for both the writer and the reader, so it’s being skipped over to get to the ending faster. It feels as though someone is telling me the story instead of letting me watch the story unfold. I read this a couple of months ago and forgot a lot of it so I decided to reread it and write down all the events to try and hammer down the plot before writing a review, and I found that once I distilled the plot down to one page, the only side characters whose actions pertain to the main story are Theodolphus Rose, Carmen, and Isobel (and Carmen and Isobel only at one moment).
Roberta is a pretty strong character, but aside from being the catalyst for Patricia discovering her powers, she’s not really relevant to the events of the second half because she’s so far away. Theodolphus Rose is also only relevant to the first half, although he makes appearances in the second. He doesn’t even come close to accomplishing his objective, and the way he goes about carrying out his mission in the first half doesn’t make a lot of sense (spoiler: he’s an assassin trying to kill Patricia and Laurence, but his Order won’t let him so he tries to convince them to kill each other, instead of doing something sensible like getting Patricia to give up magic or Laurence to stop inventing. In the end, he is probably the cause of the disaster he dreaded. If he hadn’t pitted Laurence and Patricia against each other, they wouldn’t have been separated, and the magical realm and the Ten Percent Project would have had better communication and maybe worked together instead of trying to destroy each other).
Carmen and Isobel are Patricia and Laurence’s mentors, respectively, but Carmen only comes in when (spoiler: she shows Patricia the Unraveling) and Isobel’s actions are only important when she (spoiler: holds the gun to Patricia’s head). We never see Carmen or Isobel doing any mentoring. Isobel scolds Laurence and Carmen tells Patricia to hush up. Other than that, they don’t really interact with their pupils. I had a clear visual image of most of the characters, since their appearance was well-described, but I feel like I didn’t get to know them because I didn’t see them really do anything indicative of character. This is most obvious in the case of Taylor, whose main character trait is that she or he is of indeterminate gender. Taylor appears in a couple scenes, and says something that scares Patricia once, but until the end they’re just kind of there. It’s kind of annoying to me because a character who is physically well-described but doesn’t do anything or have enough lines of dialogue to give me a sense of what kind of a person they really are is a bit like hearing a joke without a punchline. Pretty much all of the side characters (Ernesto, Diantha, Kevin, Serafina, etc) annoy me for this reason.
*** NOTE: Skip this part if you don’t want the ending spoiled ***
There is a riddle at the center of the book which leaves the reader hanging. The riddle is, “Is a tree red?” It comes up a couple of times in the book. The first time is when the birds ask it to Patricia and she says she needs more time. The second time Laurence asks it to her. Then Patricia asks it to Peregrine, and it shocks Peregrine into consciousness. Then Patricia forgets about the riddle until the very end of the book, when the Parliament of Birds asks if she’s come up with an answer. She goes through a couple of situations in her mind in which a tree might be red, but decides she can’t answer the question for a tree in general and simply says, “I don’t know.” The birds accept this, but to the reader it feels like a cop-out. I see that’s good to have an open mind and not profess to know things you don’t know, but to have the central question in the book be something so random and meaningless… is something only Charlie Jane Anders could pull off! Haha. And I guess the point is to flout the reader’s expectations for closure, but this is a little extreme and feels a bit off-the-cuff and lazy.
In addition, the whole ending scene feels anticlimactic. The day isn’t saved by anything Laurence or Patricia do, but by Peregrine. When Laurence puts Peregrine into the magic tree, Peregrine just magically makes the Unraveling go away. What’s worse is that making the Unraveling go away doesn’t solve the problem, since the world is in the middle of ecological collapse and the witches destroyed humanity’s only escape plan. Actually, everybody’s doomed at the end because the witches destroyed the thing that could have helped humanity survive, and Peregrine destroyed the thing that could have helped everything else survive. So everyone’s going to die. THE END.
The birds were right – it was actually too late! Well, hopefully now magicians and scientists will have better cooperation since Laurence and Patricia are back together for good. It would be really interesting to see a sequel to this with Laurence and Patricia figuring out how to rebalance the biosphere.
*** You can start reading here again ***
I know I just sounded really negative on that last page, but the cleverness, humor, and insight on the individual lines make up for a lot of the plot problems so I ended up rating it a 4/5. I’d like to close with some of my favorite quotes from the book:
He was Laurence of Ellenburg, and he was unflappable. Laurence had just figured out that “unflappable” did not have anything to do with whether people could mess up your clothing, and now he used that word as much as he could.
“I am unflappable,” Laurence told the bus driver. Who shrugged, as if he’d thought so too, once upon a time, until someone had flapped him.
“On the long drive home, Laurence tuned out his parents explaining to him that life isn’t an adventure, for chrissake, life is a long slog and a series of responsibilities and demands. When Laurence was old enough to do what he liked, he would be old enough to understand he couldn’t do what he liked.”
“At dinner, Patricia forked steamed kale around her plate while her mom asked what everybody had done to Improve themselves today. Roberta, the perfect straight-A student, always had the best Improvements, like every day she’d aced some crazy-tough assignment. But Patricia was stuck at a school where all you ever did was memorize stuff and fill out multiple-choice ovals, so she had to lie, or else learn something in her spare time.” (I felt like that when my Dad would ask, “What did you do today?” at dinner. He’s a kidney transplant surgeon so it was a little hard to match up!)
“Birds taste good,” Berkley observed, bouncing on his front paws a little. “They flap around and try to fly out of your paws. They are like toys with meat inside.”
“A society that has to burn witches to hold itself together is a society that has already failed, and just doesn’t know it yet.” – Patricia
“When talking about middle school, Laurence had long since learned it was best not even to mention that he believed he’d created artificial intelligence in his bedroom closet, even as a funny story. It just made him sound like an asshat.” (It is sad that a lot of us feel shame when we remember the beautiful things we believed we were capable of as children)
“We were trying to create robots that would be able to interact with people’s feelings in a visceral way. But we were focusing on the wrong thing. We don’t need better emotional communication from machines. We need people to have more empathy. The reason the Uncanny Valley exists is because humans created it to put other people into. It’s how we justify killing each other.”
If you’ve read it, let me know what you think. Did you find the end satisfying?