allthebirdstop

All the Birds in the Sky – A Magical Quest to Recover a Relationship with Nature in the Technological Age

birdsAll the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Published on January 26, 2016
Tor Books
Source: I bought it
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“Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during middle school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.

But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them… Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together–to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.” Source: MacMillan.

4starrating

Review

I love weird books (those that don’t subscribe to conventional formulas or genres, that question boundaries of our perception or “reality”, that refuse to be constricted by reader expectations). And, despite having read reviews for months praising the oddity of All the Birds in the Sky, I still managed to be taken aback by the ways in which this book stands outside – or forges its own – tradition.

First, the two broad strands that inform this work are (1) the tech-geek world and (2) nature-appreciating, ethically conservationist, justice seeking activist world. Anders speaks convincingly on both sides. There is Laurence, who, as a child, constructs his own supercomputer from scraps in his bedroom closet as he hides from engaging with the world, and Patricia, a witch, both ‘healer’ and ‘trickster’, who speaks with animals, summons natural forces, and spends her free time reaching out into the world, healing the sick.

So All the Birds in the Sky is a parable of sorts that captures the now-classic 21st century dilemma: human conquest of nature through technology vs. the prioritization of the health and viability of The Whole (earth, other species, ecosystems, atmosphere, etc). In a thoughtfully balanced way, Anders paints a complex landscape free of traditional “good-evil” dualities. Characters on both sides have constructive and destructive instincts. Similarly, they are all flawed, well-meaning human beings who are passionate about their work, but also just want to be loved and find meaning through community.

It comes down to a question of first principles: do we understand the world as constructed of distinct components, that can more or less be taken apart (the-world-as-machine, in the Newtonian tradition), or do we understand the world as a holistic emergence that is not only constituted by, but constitutes the parts? (the-world-as-organism). Laurence, our scientist, is of the former camp, and thus believes humans can just be extricated from a devastated Earth and shipped off to colonize distant planets (perhaps repeating the cycle – it’s all about human survival). Patricia, our witch, sees humanity’s travails as very much a part of the story of the decaying Earth, and seeks to heal both by mending their relationship.

Loved the message, characterizations, questions, philosophy, and style of this book. Still, the emotional/maturity scale of Birds in the Sky never tipped beyond a YA novel – the characters speak as children throughout the story (into their young adulthood). Or rather, as adults, they speak as superhero-adult imaginings of children. As complex as the story was in other dimensions, relationships were presented in somewhat simplistic construction of long-known-but-suppressed-thwarted-by-circumstance-ya-angst-love. Probably, in my early 20s, this may have been a 6-star book, but a decade later, I feel no connection to the characters (although I did relate, emotionally, to the message).

Still, overall, a beautifully written, thoughtful, quirky, weird, unique story about our relationship with nature and about our ethical responsibilities in an age of environmental devastation derived from human actions. Highly recommended!

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