All The Birds In The Sky
Charlie Jane Anders
Titan Books, 431 pages
Review by Duncan Lunan
In recent times I’ve been avoiding reading and reviewing fantasy, partly because I got bored with what seemed to be a generic setting corresponding to mediaeval England just before the Black Death, but frozen in time, without the dynamic social and technological changes which were then in full swing, but with heavy emphasis on the squalor. As I said in one review, it would be nice to read one set somewhere like Sweden or Switzerland. I haven’t got on much better with the ones set in Tudor or Victorian times, to be honest, because they’ve seemed to be too heavy-handed, over-emphasising the period aspects till they became unconvincing. I’ve also been getting bored with recent Young Adult novels: it’s seemed as if all the teenage protagonists’ viewpoints were the same viewpoint, with relationships with the opposite sex in centre stage. Yes, they loomed large when I was that age, but not at the expense of issues like the Moon race or the Vietnam War.
I keep thinking that Heinlein did it so much better – and All the Birds in the Sky does reference Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, which is a good sign.It reminded me of an intriguing radio serial on Children’s Hour in my childhood, where the fight between good and evil was played out simultaneously in SF and fantasy settings, so that one character might be talking into an enchanted seashell and another hearing her on a walkie-talkie or a spacesuit radio. In this novel’s near-future setting, a developing environmental crisis is being tackled in different ways by two organisations, one based on science and the other on magic, with the corresponding characters initially at the same school, somewhere within a bus ride of Boston. Patricia can talk to birds and animals, Laurence builds a sentient computer and a two-second time machine, so both are sought for recruitment by the respective groups. Their dreadful parents share a blind determination to push their children into the niches they’ve selected for them, with plenty of psychobabble to justify their actions. You might think that was bad enough, but with clueless teachers and a psychotic school counsellor who is determined to destroy them both, their problems on the home front make Harry Potter’s seem relatively minor. There aren’t any paranormal entities trying to steal their souls or tear them limb from limb, but the nasty people they’re handed over to more than make up for it.
Laurence and Patricia go through very different forms of higher education, out of touch, and end up in California, where there’s rather more sex and drug-taking than in other Young Adult novels I’ve covered. Laurence is drawn into a group aiming to develop a wormhole and take an elite off Earth to start again elsewhere, while Patricia is on a crusade to wipe out evil-doers, despite her tutors’ warnings against ‘aggrandizement’, whereby magicians or witches assume they’re always right and all changes they make will be for the better. That leads her group of newly qualified witches to make an unauthorised attack on the science project, justified by a certainty that otherwise it will wreck the planet. There’s a definite chance that it might do, and like the scientists on the Manhattan Project, Laurence’s group do debate the issue – but their millionaire leader seems certain to get his way, as the military did with the Bomb. The attack succeeds, though with heavy loss of life on both sides, and it brings on the environmental disaster which the young witches thought they had the right and the power to prevent.
It comes with some nice lines. I particularly liked, ‘My biggest fear about the apocalypse isn’t being eaten by cannibals – it’s the fact that in every other post-apocalypse movie you see someone with an acoustic guitar by the campfire’, and, ‘Loose ends are cool. Loose ends mean that you’re still living your life. The person who dies with the most loose ends wins.’ But the rapprochement between science and magic which Laurence and Patricia achieve at the ending could only be achieved after an apocalypse, when the existing authority structures have been demolished. It wouldn’t work in the present day, and that leaves the serious question: must the world be broken in order to save it? Should it be? The book doesn’t provide easy answers, and Young Adult readers may find a lot here to discuss. I needed some persuasion to read All the Birds in the Sky, having resolved to avoid both fantasy and YA novels from now on, but I’m glad that I made this one an exception.
This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 3.