Saturday, July 28, 2018

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book was the selection for a local book club I am part of. I would likely never have discovered it on my own, as modern Science Fiction isn’t something I follow closely. However, it was a good read.

The basic idea of All the Birds in the Sky is one of magical realism - combined with a kind of “scientific realism” too. Let me explain. One of my friends from law school really blew my mind years ago with his observation that magic and technology are really the same thing, in the literary sense. Magic isn’t generally supernatural in sense that it is at the whims of the gods. Rather, it is a force just like, say, electricity, which can be controlled and used by the engineers (or wizards) in the same way technology that most of us cannot truly understand can be controlled by our own scientific wizards. In this book, then, there are the two contending forces. One is magic, which is connected with nature, which makes the “witches” kind of environmental healer sorts. The other is that of cutting edge science, which seeks to either master nature, or leave planet earth for a new home.

The central characters are Patricia, who discovers her magical powers at a young age, and Laurence, who has scientific powers. The two of them become friends. Essentially, they are outcasts, persecuted by the other kids, and misunderstood by their very different dysfunctional families.They intersect at various times in their lives, culminating in the ending, when they have to, well, save the world together. By stopping their respective tribes from bringing their versions of the apocalypse about.

The theme of alienation is unsurprising. Anders is a younger person (than me at least), and disaffection is certainly trendy. But also, Anders is transgender, and I feel that her own struggles to fit in are reflected throughout the book.

I won’t get much into the plot, because I don’t want to spoil it. Okay, one major spoiler: the ending requires the fusion of the powers of magic/the earth and technology/humankind. While the exact solution is left unsaid, it is essentially a union between the Tree (representing Gaia or the earth soul) and an artificial intelligence created by Laurence and Patricia (representing the human element, both rational and emotional). It is a union that is a meeting of soul mates, almost sexual in intensity.

One of the interesting things about the book is that in some ways, the apocalypse takes a back seat to the human relationships. Both Patricia and Laurence form romantic relationships with others that ultimately prove unsatisfying, before realizing they are soul mates. But beyond this central relationship are a plethora of complicated, realistic relationships and characters. In fact, I think I was more curious about how the relationships would play out than I was about the ending.

But let me be clear: I really liked the ending. Many modern books are ambiguous and do the “lady or the tiger” thing at the end. Which is a defensible literary decision. But I appreciated the ending in this one. It was connected with the beginning, and supported throughout. In other words, good, tight plotting. But it was also both creative and satisfying, even if it didn’t give a full solution. The marriage of technology and magic, human and earth, and Patricia and Laurence, felt right, given the world created.

Our book club discussion was enlightening as well. One thing another member pointed out was that the first sentence or two of every chapter was fantastic. I have to agree. Anders really thought through the openings, and each one is a hook to draw you in. Here is just one, from Chapter 16:

Other cities had gargoyles or statues watching over them. San Francisco had scare owls.

And each of these openings relates to the content of the chapter. It is good writing, and I appreciate that, regardless of the genre.

What else to mention? Well, there is a big sex scene. Our discussion of that was interesting. For the most part, the women mentioned that it was clearly a female-written scene, given the particular observations and focus. The men, for the most part, found the scene awkward. I am not sure anyone else noticed that the author was transgender, and the discussion moved on before I could mention it. Personally? I find most sex scenes awkward, whether it is because of my Fundie history, or because sex is hard to write about. I will give credit for the scene being rather female-focused, rather than phallocentric.

One more thing: I want to mention again that the secondary characters are good. This is a fairly short book, and there isn’t time, like in an 800 page novel, to develop each one. But what we do see is interesting, and I was almost disappointed that there wasn’t time to go into the lives of those other people. Again, this is all a sign of good writing, and careful observation of people.

I wouldn’t say this book is great literature. It is genre fiction, intended to be so, but good at what it is. Anders writes well, and I found myself appreciating a well turned phrase or psychological perception. Definitely worth the time spent.


  1. Thanks for this review. I was in the middle of two other reads and didn't get an opportunity to check out the Book Club choice. Now I'm interested enough to put it on my reading list.