Title and Author: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Publication Date: January 2016
Genre: Science fiction and fantasy
How I got it: Bought the print version off Amazon
All the Birds in the Sky, set in this mundane world of ours, mixes so many familiar speculative fiction ideas together in such a unique and weird way — and I mean that in the best possible way.
The novel opens with six-year-old Patricia discovering she can talk to birds. And there’s an awesome magical tree. Birds and trees! Really, can’t score much higher than that (with me) for an opening. Fast forward and we meet Laurence, a bullied middle-schooler who has created a time-traveling wristwatch that can jump 2 seconds into the future, which is a bit of a let down but comes in handy when he sees a bully coming. He’s also working on an AI with a computer he created in his closet. He’s kind of a genius. He and Patricia go to the same school, and she’s just as much a victim of bullying as he. (WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN IN ALL MIDDLE SCHOOLS???) And she thinks she might be a witch. So we’ve got a computer genius and a witch as protagonists. When Laurence hires Patricia to convince his parents she’s his ‘hiking’ friend so they’ll get off his case about making friends, both their lives and futures take a turn.
Oh, and there’s an assassin school counselor who’s trying to take them both out because he claims they will bring about the apocalypse. Also, the assassin likes milkshakes.
Spot some common SF ideas yet? We’ve got time-travel, AI, magical trees, talking birds, witchcraft, and a possible apocalypse. Not so common when they’re all mixed together like this in an otherwise completely normal setting.
While the first 116 pages take place in this middle-school Hell, they’re adults in the rest of the novel. I’ve read reviews where readers had issues with this sudden leap in time, or it beginning with them as children, but I had no issues whatsoever with this. Sorry, but you can have kids with povs in adult novels. It’s really no big deal. We’ve all been young before, and go back thirty years in fiction and ya protagonists were absolutely normal. (I may be a bit biased since I’m working on a novel that does the same thing.) After middle school, Patricia and Laurence go their separate ways, but now, as adults, they ‘accidentally’ keep meeting, again and again, even though Patricia is a member of a witch society and Laurence is creating a machine that will transport people to another planet if the earth collapses. They shouldn’t have anything in common, yet they find each other around every corner. While their adult goals are at odds with one another, friendship re-blooms nonetheless, and maybe a bit more.
On top of mixing the apocalypse, AI, magic, and romance (calm down, it’s not too sappy), the novel is also philosophical. Take some of these lines:
“Well,” Patricia said. “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.” (This one probably needs to go up on my writing board)
“I don’t actually think that ethics are derived from principles. At all.” Patricia scooted a little closer again and touched his arm with a few cool fingertips. “I think that the most basic thing of ethics is being aware of how your actions affect others, and having an awareness of what they want and how they feel. And that’s always going to depend on who you’re dealing with.”
All the Birds in the Sky is an incredibly original and fun novel, and the mix of sci-fi and fantasy works really well, though I’ll admit it feels a bit messy at times, as experimental fiction often does. I like that feeling, but some might not. There are so many discussable topics. As a teacher, I would love to assign this in a university reading course, but it’d also be perfect for a book group. It’s one I plan on re-reading.