How solid is the barrier between the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction? I ask because novels which play games with genre divisions seem to be in fashion. In January I reviewed a book (Iain Pears’ “Arcadia”) which keeps readers guessing about whether it is Fantasy or Science Fiction. This week I’m recommending a novel in which the two leading characters seem to belong in different genres. “All the Birds in the Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders was first published in 2016 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook.
The story is set in an America in the near future and starts by describing the formative experiences of two unhappy kids who go to the same school. When six year old Patricia saves a wounded bird from her cruel sister, she discovers that she can understand the speech of birds and animals. The rescued bird takes Patricia to the Parliament of Birds which is held deep in the forest. At the Parliamentary Tree, Patricia is told that she is a witch and asked “the Endless Question” – which she fails to understand. Patricia is punished by her parents for wandering off and loses her ability to talk to animals. She soon wonders if the whole episode was a dream. Meanwhile, clever science-obsessed Laurence is getting bullied for being a nerd. One day Laurence goes off by himself to the MIT campus to watch a rocket-launch that he’s heard about. The launch is postponed but Laurence does get to meet a sympathetic rocket-scientist called Isobel and “maverick tech investor” Milton Dirth who is funding a new space programme. They tell Laurence to come back and see them when he is eighteen.
Patricia and Laurence are both picked on at school for being different and are persecuted by a guidance counselor who is not what he seems. They form a defensive alliance which is almost a friendship and confide in each other. Laurence secretly builds a sentient supercomputer called CH@NG3M3 and Patricia learns how to reawaken her magic. She finds Laurence an unreliable supporter. Even so, just before she is whisked off to attend a special school for the magically gifted, Patricia intervenes to help Laurence when his ambition to go to a science school is under threat.
The pair don’t see each other again until they are both grown up and living in San Francisco. Laurence has become a brilliant computer engineer and is working for Milton Dirth. He shares a house with Isobel and has a stunning girlfriend who builds “emotional robots”. He has got the life he wanted but Ecological catastrophes are mounting up and the whole world is under threat. Laurence and Patricia meet at a party and soon start confiding in each other again. She is in trouble with her group of witches for using her magic too often and breaking the rules about helping people. Laurence is working on a Doomsday Machine that could save humanity but the witches are dedicated to preserving the whole of nature. Patricia and Laurence find themselves on opposite sides in what could be the final conflict….
After the magical opening chapter, I found “All the Birds in the Sky” hard going for a while. Introverted Laurence and lonely Patricia are regarded as “losers” by their schoolmates at Canterbury Academy and it was painful to read about the physical and mental cruelty they are forced to endure. I do so hope that the hellish impression I get of American public schools from Fantasy novels, films and TV series is wildly unrealistic. I would rather take a bus trip through Mordor than spend a week at Canterbury Academy. The only place worse is the brutal Military Reform School that Laurence gets sent to by his inept parents. Anders deploys all the descriptive powers and depth of characterization of a top-notch literary novelist. Although their family and schoolmates are bizarrely awful, Patricia and Laurence seem intensely real – so you suffer along with them.
However, “All the Birds in the Sky” is not a conventional “coming of age” novel. Anders constantly takes the story off in surprising directions. For example, when Patricia and Laurence take turns to guess who people on an escalator are “based just on their footwear” it seems a perceptive account of the way childish imaginations work. Then on the next page, one of Patricia’s wildest guesses – that a man in “black slippers and worn gray socks” is “a member of a secret society of trained killers” – turns out to be true. Anders also catches you out with sudden shifts of tone. Some parts of “All the Birds in the Sky” are sharply funny; others achingly sad. Many elements of the story are treated in unexpected ways. Thus the assassin subplot is played for laughs, the natural disasters largely happen off-stage rather than being used to generate big dramatic scenes, Laurence’s potentially farcical relationships with woman are sensitively examined, and the inset story of CH@NG3M3, a computer with its own agenda, turns out to be more heart-warming than sinister.
Is it possible to please both Science Fiction and Fantasy fans in one novel? In “All the Birds in the Sky” Anders takes numerous popular plot motifs from both genres and uses them in her own distinctive way. From Science Fiction there is a Time Machine (but one that only takes Laurence two seconds into the future), an Artificial Intelligence which starts to act independently of its human creator, a vault to store humanity’s scientific knowledge, creepy high-tech devices which seem to be controlling people’s lives, a world threatened by man-made disasters, an increasingly urgent mission to find a new planet for the human race to settle and a machine which might tear the earth apart. I suspect that some lovers of Hard SF will think Anders approach to these serious topics too playful and quirky for their tastes. I found it refreshing.
Among the Fantasy motifs included in “All the Birds in the Sky” are talking animals,the riddle which must be solved, the magical place that is hard to find again, the school for training witches and wizards, the spell that exacts a terrible price, the prophecy of doom and the witch who breaks the rules. Fantasy readers may feel that the magical part of the narrative isn’t given enough page time. We only learn about Patricia’s training in flashbacks, which is a pity because her dual-campus school sounds interesting. Students spend part of their time studying formal magic in Eltisley Hall and part experiencing a more intuitive magic in The Maze, where you can do whatever you like but learn through random ordeals. Patricia’s fellow witches in San Francisco are an intriguing bunch too, especially Ernesto who cannot leave his bookstore home and must not be touched and Dorothea who looks like a harmless old woman but can kill people with her whispered stories. I wish we saw more of them.
As I read “All the Birds in the Sky” I kept thinking that it couldn’t work because Anders was putting in things that should have been left out and leaving out things that should have been put in. Strangely, when I got to the end I realized that the novel had worked for me. I’d been charmed by Anders’ style and won over by her characters. The evolving relationship between Patricia and Laurence is one of the most convincing love stories I’ve ever read. Initially all they have in common is being outsiders. Laurence is embarrassed by Patricia and she feels crushed by his intellect but they go through a lot together. Both of them want to change the world for the better but fear that they may only make things worse. As an adult, Laurence realizes that he feels secure with Patricia because she has already seen him at his worst and Patricia comes to believe that Laurence is the one person who has earned her complete trust. They belong to opposing groups with very different visions of the future but together they have the strength to look for a less extreme third way. This isn’t a novel which argues that one side is right and the other is wrong. “All the Birds in the Sky” offers the hope that different philosophies and beliefs can be reconciled and that everyone can join together to do amazing things. This happens in the story in a most extraordinary fashion. To find out how, you’ll have to read this endearing novel. Until three weeks time….