Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky follows Patricia, a skilled witch, and Laurence, a denizen of Silicon Valley intent on saving the world, from their childhoods in the care of abusive and neglectful parents into adulthoods that are just as uncertain, as climate collapse begins to impinge on their relatively comfortable San Francisco lifestyles.
There isn’t really a plot hook, or not one that’s readily describable, anyway; instead, the novel is really about loving someone (as a friend or as a lover) whose beliefs, values and worldview are very different from your own. Laurence operates with typical Silicon Valley arrogance: not personal arrogance exactly, but the absolutely certain belief that everything can be fixed by technology (can you say Elon Musk’s submarine?), that the human race and human intelligence are the most important things ever produced by this planet, and that, consequently, leaving the dying Earth is the best future for us. Whereas Patricia and the society of witches she belongs to believe that humanity is fundamentally defined by its relationship to nature; that every other life form is as important as we are; and that humanity is incapable of affecting nature. (Which, now I think about it, sounds suspiciously like climate change denial. At no point does the novel manage to square this circle: the witches are clearly aware that we are, in fact, damaging the planet, because they have a last-ditch plan to stop it, and yet one of their key tenets is never allowing ourselves to be arrogant enough to think we’re the centre of the universe.)
Anyway. The novel charts Laurence and Patricia’s relationship over the years, as they make friends at school, fall in and out of friendship, briefly become lovers and find themselves on opposite sides of a war for the future of the Earth.
One of the things that seems to crop up relatively often in discussions of All the Birds in the Sky (by which I mean, discussions over at the Tournament of Books, which featured Anders’ novel in 2017) is how it’s replying to other SFF novels. As far as I can see, what it’s doing mainly is deliberately stripping back its worldbuilding. Patricia attends a magic school, Eltisley Maze, which is clearly modelled on Hogwarts; but we see virtually none of her life there. Laurence builds an AI in his closet as a child, but Peregrine, as he calls this new kind of intelligence, drops out of view for most of the novel. Anders is constantly giving us little glimpses of a geekily fantastical world waiting in the wings, but she never actually shows it to us.
This is obviously meant to refocus us on the characters before us and their relationship, rather than on the plotty plot plot that most (mainstream) SFF deploys to make its point. Only, I think this approach shows up the main weak point of All the Birds in the Sky, which is that Patricia and Laurence are not, once you get past their vaguely hipsterish exteriors, very interesting people. Well: certainly I never bought them as real, complex people; they feel more like symbols illustrating a debate that goes right back to the Renaissance, between science and nature, rational knowledge and magic, male and female. There are ways to handle this tension intelligently, but I don’t think Anders manages it. It’s nice to see Patricia and Laurence trying to figure their differences out and actually form a productive relationship that has space for both of them – given the global political climate, I think that’s something we all need to work on, making space in our lives for people who don’t think like we do – but it’s not very original or sophisticated.
I can see where Anders was going. But I don’t think she got there. It’s a nice enough novel; it’s inoffensive; it passes the time. It’s just not very interestin