Best Novel Nominees: All the Birds in the Sky

For some novels, mixing tropes from different parts of the spectrum of science fiction and fantasy can seem indecisive or inconsistent.  Not so with Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, which blends numinous urban fantasy with physics-and-rocketry science fiction in a way that allows the strengths of both to complement each other.  One of our two protagonists, Patricia, discovers early on her potential as a witch, foreseen and challenged by the Parliament of Birds to solve a riddle to realize her power; her path through adolescence as she tries to rediscover her power separates her from those around her.  The other, Laurence, is a technical wunderkind, his skill with science and engineering both motivated by and contributing to his isolation from his schoolmates.  Their orbits intersect in school, and like a pair of eccentric planets in an unsolvable three-body problem, their trajectories fling them far apart, only to fall back into each other’s gravity wells again and again, even as they are recruited into opposing factions in a conflict between science and magic that is prophesized as both inevitable and catastrophic.

Their interweaving coming-of-age stories combine with a broader plot involving climate change, which in the near-future (or perhaps alternate-present) of this story is already responsible for some major disasters that are alluded to in geographic shorthand, the way we might reference “Fukushima” or “Katrina”.  The reader doesn’t need to know the details to know that the effects of those disasters are still reverberating.  With the world on the precipice of an apocalyptic-level disaster, Laurence’s technical institute (led by a vaguely Elon-Musk-esque figure convinced that we must get a significant fraction of humanity off-world) and Patricia’s community of practioners (which through a series of cautionary tales about the dangers of arrogance has eschewed any strong structure of leadership) each have their own ideas of how to address the global threat.  These ideas are themselves incompatible, of course, which ultimately pits Laurence and Patricia directly against each other in a conflict neither of them ever wanted.

While the cycle of successes and failures of Patricia and Laurence’s ability to relate to each other form the emotional core of the story, their individual stories are each important as well.  Patricia goes off to a school of magic while Laurence follows the stereotypical Silicon-Valley-genius path to knowledge and success, but despite their differences, their stories still feel like two parts of a unified whole.  The numinous sense of powers beyond our ken, typical to the fantasy tropes of Patricia’s story, are echoed in Laurence’s story as bits of technology that seem only mildly remarkable within the story but appear magical to readers – the two-second time machine, the supercomputer rewriting its own code, the network of smartphone-like gadgets that subtly guide their owners to serendipitous occurrences.  Meanwhile, the science-fictional tropes of Laurence’s story – the sense of a framework of physical laws that must be contended with, and the characters’ search for knowledge and power within that framework – weave through Patricia’s gradually deepening understanding of her magic, and the strict rules imposed on it by both her peers and by the rules by which she can conduct her witchcraft.  The result – and, perhaps, the moral of the story – is the idea that trying to save the world using only one side of that dichotomy between the concrete and the spiritual is an effort doomed to failure, but by seeking the synthesis of, and balance between, two opposing but not necessarily contradictory forces, we can accomplish far more than we could with either one on its own.

My only complaint about the story is the abruptness of its ending.  The novel’s conclusion promises far greater things than we actually see before the story ends, so I really hope there’s a sequel coming – but I went in thinking this was a standalone novel, so the amount of plot left open or unresolved was a little surprising.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 TK Focht on 07.03.17 at 9:18 pm

I agree about the ending. I had a very strong feeling of “this is it?” but without any indication that the story was meant to continue, either. I thought that was really unfortunate, because of all the nominees I’ve read or am reading (all but Obelisk Gate) this one was the most immediately engaging, but the engaging start didn’t have a lot of meaning to the conclusion.

Although not a worldview I subscribe to in reality, I was pleased to let myself go with the flow of both Magic and Science lending themselves to the fantastic. It gave me a very White Wolf Mage feel that I enjoyed.

You must log in to post a comment.