Thursday, March 3, 2016

Book Review - All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

I have just read the new novel All the Birds in the Sky. It is Anders's second novel, after Choir Boy, though this is the first work of hers I have read. It is by wrenching turns an epic story, an escapist fantasy, a romance, a mystery, an examination of our relationship with nature, and a damning portrayal of human intelligence.

The novel begins with two children, Patricia and Laurence. Both of them have a strange experience, at the age of six: Patricia has a conversation with several birds, who ask her the question, "Is a tree red?" Laurence builds his own two-second time machine, and meets a group of science geeks who consider this a sort of rite-of-passage. Then Patricia and Laurence meet, at the age of thirteen, and begin a life-long exploration of each other's talents, thus providing a microcosm of a much larger conflict, the worldwide conflict between magic and technology.

The first third of the novel, that of their middle-school years, is an overly sentimental and unnecessarily violent look at the stupidity of adults. Patricia and Laurence are both social outcasts, they are mistreated by their parents and by their teachers, and they are stalked by a man named Theodolphus Rose for reasons that are never made clear. In order to escape the world's cruelty, Patricia turns to magic and Laurence to technology, and we of course ponder the question, "Can they learn to understand each other?"

What is the difference between magic and technology? Simple: the knowledge of how it works. To Patricia, magic is just another kind of technology, as long as she is willing to listen to what the different living things of the world are saying in their own languages.

Put simply, it is a novel that depicts the war between machines and nature, and shows how both scientists and witches try to solve the earth's problems, only to find that they get in each other's way. The problem with the novel is that it is never "simple." It is overly complex and confusing, in spite of its short length. I see it as a failed escapist novel, one that depicts the world as aimless and cruel while the author attempts to find a meaning to life that is never clearly defined or felt. The question "Is a tree red?" is repeated several times in the novel, and appears to act as a plot device, but it is a dead-end sort of plot device, like Alex DeLarge's frequent playing of Beethoven recordings in A Clockwork Orange. Late in the novel, when the world is (quite literally) falling apart, Laurence says to Patricia, "Remember when we were kids? And we used to wonder how grown-ups got to be such assholes?" And he answers himself, "Now we know," referring to all the stupid acts of destruction that the two of them, along with other people whom they trusted, have recently brought to pass. The novel is about a war, but it depicts the war in the most predictable ways possible. The book uses complexity as a substitute for depth; no matter how many magic tricks and trans-dimensional devices people can invent, those methods ring hollow when the characters cannot decide what they actually care about.

The title All the Birds in the Sky could be seen as a symbol for all the different living things in the world that human beings will never have the time to understand. Yes, we yearn to know what this world really is made of, what we really need to do with our lives - but this novel does not hold still long enough to hear itself think. In spite of its experimental nature, the story consists of a number of cliches: the evil assassin disguised as a middle-school teacher, the parents sending their kid to military school, the cool hangout where people drink mystical puke-provoking potions, the novel suddenly wrapping itself up with a completely unnecessary battle scene that kills off half the characters. The most drawn-out cliche (also the most amusing) was the sex scene. What is it with contemporary authors describing the two characters' naked bodies for pages on end? Does she really think we do not know what a human body looks like? Yes, it is a scene of two people who have known each other for years, and suddenly they make love for the first time, but let's face it, this has already happened millions of times in literature!

In her acknowledgments, Anders actually wrote, "I really hope you guys enjoyed this book. If you didn't, or if there was stuff that didn't make sense to you or seemed too random, just e-mail me and I'll come to your house and act the whole thing out for you. Maybe with origami finger puppets." To me, this statement betrays either a general lack of interest in her own work, or a lame desire to sound modest. In my opinion, Anders either is not optimistic enough to write a convincing escapist novel (in which case she should have written a tragedy instead), or she could not decide what aspect of this world the characters were trying to escape from in the first place. Like Ready Player One, All the Birds in the Sky is a mishmash of science-fiction and fantasy, attempting to reconcile the two genres without identifying what it actually is about those two genres that makes them so endearing.

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