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All the Birds in the Sky
All the Birds in the Sky
Charlie Jane Anders
Tor Books, 2016
320 pp., 25.99

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Marci Rae Johnson

Opposites Attract

Apocalyptic fiction with a difference.

In the contemporary sci-fi class I taught last year, the students and I discussed possible reasons for the current popularity of apocalyptic scenarios. The answer from the 18-24 year-old crowd? Everyone knows it's going to happen sooner or later. Global pandemic, political and/or financial unrest, environmental disasters (always leading to said unrest), the establishment of futuristic dystopian societies, even alien invasions: take your pick.

In All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders uses some of these same tropes, but the book differs from the norm in two major ways: by providing hope, a solution to the madness before the world is too far gone, and by demonstrating that the solution to our problems is to work together. Not in a cheesy, "there's no 'I' in teamwork" way, but in a truly deep, organic, and redemptive way. And she does so not only by postulating the combination of magic and science as the ultimate solution (resolving the major conflict of the book) but also by combining elements of fantasy and sci-fi, adult and YA fiction. In this way, the message of the book isn't only in the plot—it's in the very fabric of the novel's construction and its winsome appeal to audiences that are often regarded as sharply distinct. (Warning! Spoilers to follow.)

From the very beginning of the book, it's obvious that one of the main characters, Patricia, is a fantasy novel character. A sensitive six-year-old who cares for nature in a family that is cruel and makes no effort to understand her, Patricia has a dreamlike experience in which she can talk to birds who lead her to an enormous tree and ask her the "Endless Question": "Is a tree red?" While she doesn't trust the experience as reality, it remains with her as she grows, attends school, and as a young teenager makes friends with a boy named Laurence, who hates nature, and is a science whiz who has created a two-second time machine. We've already met Laurence, in Chapter 2, which places him firmly in the sci-fi genre, complete with technological advances, including a spaceship. Nature/magic and science/technology first come into combination in Chapter 3, when the two teenagers become friends. Both are outcasts within their families and their school; hence, despite their differences, the two become inseparable—at least until Patricia demonstrates her magical abilities to Laurence, frightening and appalling him. As the first two sections of the book show, it's not easy for nature/magic and science to understand or accept one another. Patricia and Laurence try, and fail, and try again, toward the end of the second section, when Patricia befriends the supercomputer Laurence has built in his closet, CH@NG3M3, and helps train it to become an artificial intelligence. Even as Patricia is offered a place in a school for magicians, the fulfillment of her dreams, she refuses to go without first saving Laurence from a dangerous school his parents have sent him to. Before the third section begins, we sense that the two, while going off to pursue their separate specialties, have forged a connection that is not superficial.

In Book Three, we jump forward in time to a society on the brink of collapse. While the first third of the book has progressed relatively slowly, with great detail, in books Three and Four the plot rushes ahead in a sometimes confusing manner with many unexplained references, flashbacks, rushed explanations, and a plethora of characters that come and go quickly. While this frustrated me as a reader, it does mirror the confusion and rush toward apocalypse that occurs in this part of the book. Here, Patricia and Laurence are both young adults living in San Francisco, and when they reconnect at a party they jump back into their close friendship, though neither really understands nor approves of the life the other has chosen. Laurence works for a tech firm, focusing his energies on a secret project he thinks may save the world, and Patricia works underground, either healing people or destroying them as the witches' organization demands, with the same overall goal in mind. At this point the two friends mostly agree to disagree and make an effort to understand one another better by hanging out with each other's colleagues; by Chapter 24, while each still harboring misgivings about the other's affiliation, they have become lovers. Unfortunately this progression coincides with massive environmental collapse and Patricia and Laurence must each go off with their factions to try to save the world.

Here's the point where the differences between magic and science become most pronounced, as a war between the two factions begins and Patricia and Laurence are separated from each other and drawn into the conflict. They both have misgivings, however, since the witches' plan for saving the world also involves destroying most of the people in it, and there's a possibility that the science faction's device will destroy the world. While they go along with the plans for a while, even to the point of the witches destroying the tech company's device (and killing some of Laurence's friends in the process), Patricia can't stop thinking about how Laurence would criticize her own faction's plan and vice versa.

Eventually, the two meet up again (motivated partly by Laurence's old AI that has since become a ubiquitous presence through the cellphone-like device many people carry), and it's obvious they still love each other. The dialogue at this point seems stilted, and the forgiveness happens too quickly to be realistic, considering the havoc each has wreaked upon the world of the other, but this reconnection ultimately leads to redemption, the primary and most important message of the book. Just as Patricia and Laurence come together with love and reconciliation, magic/nature and science/technology must work together through the two characters to provide the manner of the world's salvation, each as equal partners despite their differences and their inability to completely understand each other. And this solution is another thing that makes the book stand apart from typical apocalyptic novels: nature and science together are the key. Science alone doesn't save us, nor does nature alone. As the AI device puts it, "A cyborg … will be the same thing as a wizard. We're working on it, anyway. Give us a little time."

Marci Rae Johnson's most recent collection of poems is Basic Disaster Supplies Kit (Steel Toe Books).

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