This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 12 March 2016.
Charlie Jane Anders might actually be able to see the future. As co-founder and managing editor of io9.com, she’s one of the most insightful people writing about science fiction today, and those skills have carried over into writing science fiction itself. Her new novel, All the Birds in the Sky, feels like a bittersweet reworking of the legendary Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman collaboration Good Omens (1990). It similarly centres on a world-threatening conflict between two intractable ideologies, with an odd couple at risk of getting swept up in the chaos. However, this time the odd couple consists of a witch and a mad scientist rather than an angel and a demon, demonstrating a moral complexity which Good Omens lacks. Witty, heartfelt, and unerringly humane, it’s a tender and funny debut from an exciting literary talent, although its occasionally flabby structure means it stops just shy of being an instant classic.
We open with Patricia, the aforementioned witch, and her first encounter with the magical world at age six. After an unexpected conversation with an injured sparrow, she is led to the mysterious Parliament of Birds, only to be yanked away by her parents at the last minute. (This is the first of many references to classic fantasy, in this case C.S. Lewis’s Parliament of Owls.) As a teenager she meets a fellow social outcast, Laurence, who goes through a similar experience involving an abortive rocket launch, and who copes with his anxieties by developing a two-second time machine. From there we follow the two of them as they grow together, then apart, and finally together again, all the while dealing with deadly assassins, home-grown AIs, and the very real prospect of human extinction. It’s a dense and multi-layered plot, filled with narrative digressions, but what holds it all together is Anders’ deft characterisation and subtly elegant prose style.
This is an endlessly quotable novel; barely a chapter went by without something that I wanted to scribble down for future use. This is mostly down to the narrative style, which is one part Douglas Adams to two parts Rainbow Rowell, and full of great one-liners. Personal highlights include “Laurence felt like he’d grown an extra body part just in time to be punched in it”, and “One day the Singularity would elevate humans to cybernetic superbeings, and maybe then people would say what they meant. Probably not, though.” But as brilliant as the jokes are, this is a fundamentally character-driven story. Laurence and Patricia are one of the most interesting literary double acts in recent memory. At one point we’re told that “They knew almost all of each other’s secrets, and that gave them license to talk in crappy puns and quotes from old hip-hop songs and fake Prohibition bootlegger slang, to the point where nobody else could even stand to be around them.” The overwhelming sense is of two people completely at ease with one another, and markedly less so with the rest of the world.
The other characters are largely solid — while a few of the bit-part players boil down to conceptual gimmicks (a man who looks different every time you meet him, a wizard who turns everything he touches into plants), the main supporting cast are economically yet vividly characterised. The lack of an overt villain is particularly noteworthy. Everyone acts with the best of intentions, even the ruthless assassin of the book’s first half. This is particularly effective given that things get downright apocalyptic in the second half: everyone and no-one is to blame, and Anders effectively conveys a sense of ambiguity and chaos without getting into tedious moralising.
That sense of narrative chaos carries over into the book’s structure, which is unfortunately one of its main problems. Anders has been a luminary of the short fiction market for a few years now, and the transition to long form is not an easy one. While the novel has a pithy, to-the-point quality, there are a few too many narrative digressions, and Anders’ habit of revealing important bits of back-story out of order leads to a plot that occasionally feels meandering. There is a sense of a writer letting themselves off the leash, which is liberating, but also leaves the story feeling a bit cluttered. The individual episodes all work beautifully, but at least one or two could have been dropped to make for tighter pacing.
Although the novel’s structure is occasionally a little undisciplined, this does not detract from the discipline evidenced elsewhere. All the Birds in the Sky shifts effortlessly from fairy tale to romantic comedy to apocalyptic despair and back again, and the clash of elements never feels jarring. It’s a virtuoso performance from a fresh new literary voice, and well worth reading, even if it feels like Anders’ best work is still ahead of her.
All the Birds in the Sky is published by Titan Books and is available to buy in paperback, RRP £7.99.