Charlie Jane Anders: All the Birds in the Sky (Book Review)

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In her 2016 novel, All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders explores relationships between humans, nature, and machines, along with the allegiances and deceptions dotting their radar screens. Toward unwrapping the narrative candies hidden within this grab bag, Anders lures us into the worlds of two very different, yet complementary, child protagonists. Patricia Delfine—described at one point as both an “antisocial weirdo” and someone with “unlimited gentleness for people when they needed it”—is a solitary girl whose attempts at saving a wounded bird awaken magical abilities she never knew she had. This encounter allows not only Patricia the discovery of a gift; it allows Anders the indulgence of wordcraft, as when Patricia cradles her charge in a plastic bucket:

Rays of the afternoon sun came at the bucket horizontally, bathing the bird in red light so it looked radioactive.

Not unlike the light through said bucket, Anders imbues nearly every page with color. Her attention to atmospheric integrity ensures that a certain degree of adhesion keeps the reader attached to even the most mundane scenes (of which there are but few). The prodigious Laurence Armstead, for his part, is developing an interest in computers and coding. His first achievement is a wrist-worn time machine that jumps forward all of two seconds, allowing him to briefly “leave reality behind and reappear for the aftermath.” A small comfort for an insular soul.

In middle school, Patricia feels the call of witch-hood. Her mutation, if you will, tugs her by the heart into a relationship no crystal ball could have foreseen when she runs into Laurence at school—literally—and breaks his time machine. In the process, she cracks open an eternity of possible futures. Patricia is intrigued by Laurence because he can actually affect the physical world around him with his machines, leaving her feeling helpless to do anything with the kinesis locked inside her.

Meanwhile, an assassin by the Biblically inflected name of Theodolphus Rose has had a vision of a man and woman inciting a war between science and magic. A pariah among his own kind for killing children, he has no compunctions posing as Patricia and Laurence’s guidance counselor in a morbid quest for peace. Where Laurence controls nature, Patricia must serve it, and the oil and water of their end goals stands to challenge every character at the molecular level, so that Rose must wage war within himself in order to achieve his own. Variations in abilities between the two protagonists reveal the destructive potential of their combination, as a budding romance threatens to activate much more than hormonal explosions.

Within this triangle, hero(in)es and nemeses comingle in familiar ways, even as they detour off well-worn paths of expectation. While Patricia is for all intents a witch, going so far as to treat the new family kitten as her familiar (sort of), she must grapple with the surety of being an outsider in a layperson’s world. The difficulties of self-imagining make Patricia a primary target of Rose’s schemes. He confides full knowledge of her inherency and assures her that Laurence must die by her hand if the world is to be saved from certain doom.

The narrative sky spread before the reader from this point onward grows to be about as populated as the book’s cover, which only hints at the many inspirations seeping into Anders’s timely fable. “I actually ended up not thinking of it so much as a genre mash-up,” she tells me in an e-mail interview:

“That was the idea early on, but the more I worked on it, the more I thought of it as a relationship story in which magic and science represent two different ways of looking at the world. A lot of the absurdism drew on Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. The biggest influence, however, was probably Doris Lessing, whose 1960s and 1970s novels combine some really biting examinations of human nature and relationships with bold uses of speculative ideas.”

The author’s jigsaw solution to this trove of witting and unwitting influence was to focus on characters, letting the world of the novel reveal itself through them. The matter-of-factness with which she depicts the story’s fantasy elements—magical and technological alike—is one of its fluent charms, and was of utmost importance to get just right:

“I was determined to make the magic feel grounded, like something with its own history and logic, which could exist in our world. Something that felt real to the characters, not something to be winked about. And the science had to be ‘mad science,’ but still connected to real science enough to feel plausible. So I spent a lot of time thinking about the history of magic in my world, and also talking to scientists about the various bits of science in the story.”

To that end, Anders went to great lengths—if not also widths and depths—to ensure that even those things we already know about humanity may be just as confounding. When, for instance, Laurence has an internal dialogue about whether to believe Patricia’s admissions of witchcraft, he concludes that, in a world in which the slam of puberty is universal, something like witchcraft might not be so farfetched after all.

As fate works its twisted smile into the foreground, life drives a wedge between Patricia and Laurence, and that wedge bears the name of Rose. Our erstwhile counselor has convinced the boy’s parents that he needs military school, and his relocation to that very place breeds some of Laurence’s most artful discontent. These developments get us into the novel’s most fantastical element of all: the fact that no one in any position of authority is willing to hear the children’s side of the story. This, too, points to fabulist inclinations:

“To some extent, this was just how the story made sense to me. I saw this as a story of two people who are misunderstood as children, and then grow into their respective abilities and find where they really belong. A big part of the structure of the book, with childhood followed by adulthood, was to show how the ‘coming of age’ story never really ends. And I wanted to capture that thing where you spend your childhood thinking that once you’re an adult, you can be around other people like yourself and find the place where you belong, and everything will be perfect—but once you’re a grown-up, even if you get to be surrounded by people who understand you, you still have huge problems. So I guess their childhoods needed to put them through some real darkness—and that darkness also forces them to come into their power and discover their abilities. And I guess a lot of the absurdism in the book comes from looking at the ugly side of human nature—a few people have compared the childhood sections to Roald Dahl, and I definitely think he was an influence.”

As Patricia herself tells Laurence years later, “My life plan involves never understanding my parents,” and from this we glean that lack of communication goes both ways. The effect is such that she must look beyond social hierarchies into intimate simulacra thereof. When we meet up with our couple-in-denial as adults, she is living as a hippie in San Francisco, working odd jobs to make ends meet. (A magic academy degree, it seems, is about as useful as a Bachelor’s to those less enchanted.) Happening to meet Laurence at a party, she encounters a man with something of a superhero complex, one who strives toward singularity of humans and machines. Patricia is jealous of Laurence for flaunting his talents, while she must hide her own, discreetly healing the sick and cursing criminals as she does away from the prying eyes of her colleagues.

Patricia is the reader’s link to an even grander vision of the story, by which one can see that gentrification is killing nature, and that magic is manifesting itself as a natural defense against unwanted intervention. Which makes the spark between our lovelorn duo all the more manic. It’s clear they need each other more than ever, even if it means ending humanity. In one amusing sequence, Laurence accidentally sends an associate’s girlfriend into another dimension and must rely on Patricia’s magic to mend his error. “Probably the most frustrating aspect,” says Anders of such scenes, “was trying to get the tone right—the humor was way too much in parts of the book, and I had to keep dialing it back so the characters could come across. The most gratifying thing was when I felt like I succeeded—after like 30 rewrites on a particular scene—in making the humor serve the characters rather than the other way around. Not that I’m claiming I nailed that all the way through, but I at least groped my way to an understanding of how I wanted that to work.”

But it really does work, because humor functions in the novel as a salve against trauma. It’s with this in mind that one can hardly reach the end of All the Birds in the Sky without feeling moved by its crazy-beautiful optimism. “I definitely wanted the novel to end with an optimistic feeling,” Anders admits. She goes on:

“Especially after all that darkness and those moments of absurdism. I never want to lecture the reader, or force-feed a particular idea or theme to anyone, but at the same time, I am a big believer in intentionality—so I thought endlessly about the meeting of magic and science, and what those things say about nature and technology. My biggest hope for the ending was that it would feel earned, but my second biggest hope was that this could be one of those books that leaves people with something to think about. Not answers, but questions. I hoped.”

That said, Anders has provided a simple yet profound answer to one of those lingering questions: It’s not that love is the greatest magic, but that the greatest magic is love.

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