For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Roy den Boer is taking over as our main reviewer for the book club books, judging all that we have picked.
There’s a lot of ambition at play in Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky. Both internal to the story and external to the writing. The novel begins switching between the perspectives of two children at different moments throughout their childhood. One, Patricia, develops magical abilities, the other, Laurence, has a scientific prowess that moves into science fiction-levels. The two characters meet. The novels keeps on skipping through time into their early adulthood. With each jump in time each character becomes more entrenched and enveloped in the tropes of their respective genres. An end-of-the-world scenario develops. A love story. And it’s trying to do all of this in a little over 300 pages. That’s ambitious.
The book is, very likely, too ambitious for its own good. It’s trying to be everything and kind of ends doing nothing particularly well. It’s trying for meta commentary on genres with its mixing of fantasy and science fiction, but it gets muddled. It’s trying to be humanistic by imbuing these characters with actual humanity, but it gets muddled. The overarching story never really connects. There’s parts comedy, parts drama, parts fantasy, parts science fiction. Tonally the book ends up feeling all over the place.
One of the fundamental issues with All the Birds in the Sky is this notion of mixing fantasy and science fiction. In theory it seems like a fun genre exercise, but the two genres aren’t really opposites, at least not the versions we are presented with here. The fantasy here is contemporary, urban. A far cry from the swords, sorcery and regressive racial stereotypes projected onto mystical beings of old school fantasy. The science fiction is similarly watered down from its spaceships, bleeps, bloops and occasional allegories for libertarian politics. Marrying the remains of the two genres becomes only conceptual. We recognize that two things are being combined, but we don’t feel fantasy or science fiction anywhere in the book. What is fantasy without the mystique? What is science fiction without the science? The stories told in the two genres aren’t terribly dissimilar in a hero’s journey way, but what’s the point?
Even though I have so much critical things to say, I end up feeling bad because I can’t doubt the sincerity at work here. There’s a version of this book that is all opportunism. This book has all the elements of yet another YA-franchise type of thing. One kid does magic, the other does tech. They’re meant for each, but they’re on opposite sides of conflict. Stretch this out over five books (six movies, of course), iron out all the weirdness – you’ve got something commercial. This book isn’t that thing. It’s too much of an odd duck in ways that I do admire, but it just doesn’t serve its strengths. On a micro level the writing is solid, the childhood parts evoke childhood, the funny parts are pretty funny. The book just falls apart completely on the macro level. Everything feels rushed, nothing lands.