Monday 30 July 2018

All the Birds in the Sky

What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? The two are often grouped together. Fans of one are usually fans of the other as well, and indeed the two often overlap. Much that is labelled science fiction contains things that are outright fantastical. The Star Wars series is one of the most extreme examples of this. Called science fiction, it follows the formula of epic fantasy, complete with wizards (jedi), monsters, and heroes fighting the forces of evil. It uses the trappings of science fiction (spaceships, faster-than-light travel, lasers), but without any actual science behind them. The reverse happens as well, with many fantasies containing scientifically plausible ideas. So where is the line between the two? Does that line even really exist?

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders plays around with the separation between science and fantasy. It jumps back and forth from one side to the other of that hard-to-define line, all the while effortlessly deconstructing the idea that there’s even a line in the first place, demonstrating that, in the end, both science fiction and fantasy are just story-telling.

It does this for more than just science fiction and fantasy, too. It tears apart the lines between comedy and serious drama, being both hilarious and deadly serious, fun and emotional. There are moments of action that wouldn’t be out of place in a Transformers movie, while also being a book about normal everyday life, from children dealing with bullies at school to the sex lives of young adults. Indeed, the book defies most attempts to slap a genre of any kind on it, and it is all the more delightful because of it.

It even defies expectations on a meta-textual level. The book is written in third person limited (meaning it focuses on the point of view of one character at a time), alternating chapter-by-chapter between its two protagonists. Except every once in a while, when the two characters are together, the perspective switches back and forth between them from one paragraph to the next. On other occasions, the perspective widens out to other characters. Even though this can be unexpected (third person omniscient is rarely used these days), it’s never jarring. Anders makes it seem completely normal and natural—she makes you think you were expecting it.

The book follows two people from childhood to young adulthood. Laurence is a child genius who is building a super-computer in his bedroom closet. Patricia can talk to animals and turn into a bird. They are both outcasts at school and this leads to them forming a friendship with each other. In time, however, events separate them. Laurence grows up to become an engineer working on an important environmental project, while Patricia graduates from a secret magical academy and becomes a witch. They are both trying to save the world, but in very different ways, ones that at first seem to be in opposition to each other.

Although the novel is set in the near future, like any good piece of fiction, it’s really a commentary on the modern world, with climate change front and centre. It’s also a commentary on people’s dependence on personal electronic devices like phones, and on social media in place of person-to-person interaction.

Charlie Jane Anders has a very straight-forward style. Her writing is not dense, but rather light and accessible, yet capable of conveying an immense amount of information in just a few words. She also has a knack for juxtaposing everyday events with the absurd. In some ways, she reminds of Douglas Adams in this regard. Absurd things just happen, but she doesn’t make a big deal out of them. The result is they become a natural part of the novel’s world and don’t feel absurd at all. Her love of British science fiction is also very clear, not just because characters often reference things like Doctor Who and Red Dwarf, but also because the story both does and doesn’t take itself seriously. There are moments in the book that brought tears of laughter to my eyes and others that brought tears of sadness. The interaction between science and magic also reminds me a little of Wizards Vs Aliens.

Also, amidst the absurdity (from child Laurence making a “two-second time machine” from blueprints he downloads off the internet to another character being an incompetent member of the Nameless Order of Assassins where he “learned the 873 ways to murder someone without leaving a whisper of evidence”), the relationship between Laurence and Patricia is utterly real. From awkward friends to young lovers to enemies-by-circumstance, these are two people who could really exist (well, ignoring the spellcasting). Ultimately, it’s their relationship that makes the whole book work. The readers’ investment in both of them, the desire to see both of them achieve their goals (even though those goals are sometimes in opposition), gives the story its power and emotion. It all leads to one of the most beautiful endings to a novel I’ve ever read (and I don’t say that lightly).

All the Birds in the Sky is a delight from beginning to end. It’s a book everyone should have on their reading list.

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