Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I’m not sure I should have read this book this week, the week of that infamous election, of all weeks. All the Birds in the Sky is somewhat apocalyptic, and this week feels much the same. Although this book is entertaining, I can’t say it gave me much in the way of hope that humanity might find a way to pull itself together, either through science or magic or some combination of both. This was so weird. In a good way. But weird. It’s well worth the hype and a really good first novel from Charlie Jane Anders, whose io9 writing and editing has always been a pleasure.
It would be accurate to say that this book is about a conflict between science and magic, but that isn’t the whole story. In fact, I’d argue that misses the point of the book, which is that different groups of humans are (mis)using science and magic in their quest to manipulate or affect nature. This theme emerges very early in the book (in Patricia’s conversation with the Tree) but reverberates throughout the book. Patricia and her crew condemn Laurence and Milton’s obsession with using science to escape the planet, but the witches are just as guilty of making doomsday plans. As Anders explores this idea, she shows how two people can get so lost in their desire to belong, to have a life that has a meaning, that they lose sight of their own lives.
Parts of this book are sucker punches. The opening is a kind of escapist response to child negligence and abuse, with Anders critiquing various ways in which parents fail to raise their children, while the children themselves manage to discover (through magic and technology, respectively) ways to escape their situations. I found the beginning of the book, with the way Laurence and Patricia get treated by their parents, much harder to read than the later parts, which actually contain comparatively more violence.
Parts of this book are silly, in a gonzo, Nick Harkaway kind of way. I could have done without Theodophilus Rose of the Nameless Assassins. Anders walks a fine line between whimsical absurdity and twee, and it doesn’t always work for me. However, I appreciate the attempt, if only because it keeps the book from taking itself too seriously. All the Birds in the Sky reminds me of The Magicians (and there is a blurb from Lev Grossman on the back of this copy), but in a good way. The Magicians felt like it was trying too hard. This book touches on similar themes—Laurence and Patricia, like Quentin and Julia, find that excellence in their chosen fields doesn’t suddenly make their lives make any sense. However, this book is less eager to shit all over my beloved fantasy fiction of youth. I mean, if you like The Magicians, you’ll still like this book—but if you didn’t like The Magicians, like me, you will also like this book. So … bonus?
All the Birds in the Sky uses a climate change apocalypse as its main source of conflict. However, the book isn’t so much about long-term anthropogenic global warming as it is the conceitedness of people who believe we can just engineer our way out of the problem (or, indeed, just dispose of this entire planet and move elsewhere). Anders reminds us that science is not a value-neutral proposition, that it is influenced by the biases of those who do it. I see all these wide-eyed articles about how Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and all these billionaires are funding moonshot-style projects to give us more energy, mine asteroids, or take us to Mars. And that’s fascinating, and it might even lead to appreciable improvements in our lives. But it also comes from a position of wealth and privilege that most people don’t inhabit, and such positions tend to bring a certain level of hubris.
Very often, narratives that critique the use of science to manipulate or control nature fall back on the idea that magic is somehow the bond between nature and humans. Scientists (and rationality) become a strange, outsider phenomenon. See this, for example, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. Anders’ portrayal of magic is more Earthsea than that: the witches in this book are very well aware of the problems that having power brings—they call it Aggrandizement, and it’s a constant source of frustration for Patricia to be accused of it.
Patricia and Laurence are interesting, flawed, dynamic main characters, and their weird non-romantic romance is one reason I kept reading. I like how they both make mistakes, misunderstand one another, and give up on each other at different times. By showing us their childhoods, Anders helps us understand what drives them as adults. I particularly enjoyed this exchange near the end:
“Remember when we were kids?” He handed her a hot mug. “And we used to wonder how grown-ups got to be such assholes?”
“Now we know.”
That really underscores the arc of this book. Patricia and Laurence try so hard to forge their own paths. In the end, they are pulled into the larger problems that face our society, and in becoming embroiled in those problems, ignore things that are important to them (as seen by Laurence’s deteriorating relationship with Serafina, or Patricia’s inability to relax and have a life beyond doing magic).
For such an amazing and fascinating book, though, the ending disappoints me. It’s somewhat of a deus ex machina, and while that is acceptable in this situation, I’m not sure I like the message I see in it. If it’s bad to assume that humans can fix what we’ve done to the environment purely through a technical solution, isn’t it just as bad to put our faith in some kind of alien entity (albeit one birthed by humans?)? Isn’t this just a techno-magical spin on the Kurzweilian idea that the Singularity will fix everything? I know Anders doesn’t take it quite that far, leaving the ending more ambiguous, but I’m still uneasy. Patricia and Laurence walking off into the brave new world feels more like an abrogation of responsibility than anything else.