All the Birds in the Sky can be pre-ordered on Amazon here. Doesn’t look like UK pre-orders are available yet, which is sad. The first four chapters are online, starting with chapter one here.
So, with the eligibility period for the 2017 Hugos just four months from opening, I think it’s time to talk about the clear frontrunner for Best Novel, which is Charlie Jane Anders’s All The Birds in the Sky.
In some ways, it’s tricky to articulate just why this book feels so fresh and necessary. Its component parts, after all, are aggressively familiar. The “there’s a science side and a magic side and they have a bit of a rivalry” setup is a standard mash-up post-Harry Potter, and the overtly eschatological bent is pretty standard issue as well. There are, one suspects, dozens of really lousy novels with the setup “a witch and a boy genius team up to avert the apocalypse.” The thing is, All the Birds in the Sky is not any of those novels. Instead, it’s the debut novel of Charlie Jane Anders.
Anders has been buzzing about the short story market for a few years now. She won a totally deserved Hugo in 2012 for “Six Months, Three Days,” a novelette whose first sentence serves as a perfectly adequate description: “The man who can see the future has a date with the woman who can see many possible futures.” And if there’s only one thing you criticize the Sad Puppies movement for, it should probably be that they’re a bunch of fascist shitheads, but if you go for two the fact that they kept “As Good As New” from the 2015 ballot because they preferred to nominate John C. Wright is absolutely the correct second choice. It’s a post-apocalyptic story in which the last survivor (a playwright and pre-med student) finds a genie’s bottle with an ornery ex-theater critic and goes about figuring out how to save the world and get it right this time.
In both cases, the appeal is similar – the stories take hoary old chestnuts of genre fiction and put them into the material reality of the present day. It’s sci-fi/fantasy that’s at once firmly rooted in the history of the genre and both from and about a world where young women’s social lives are organized via a device in their pockets that’s in many regards far more advanced than a Tricorder.
And that’s what’s fresh and vibrant about All the Birds in the Sky. Its standard genre tropes are well-chosen tools for doing a story that’s about growing up, realizing who you are in the world, and then, far more importantly, realizing that the entire narrative of growing up and realizing who you are in the world is complete and utter bullshit and that the world is a terrifying and confusing place comprised entirely of people who are trying desperately to fool each other into thinking they aren’t total fuckups. The magic/science opposition is there to be a binary opposition, with all the useful truth and false dichotomies implied. Anders does a clever thing in going with the obvious choice of having the male character, Laurence, be the science guy and the female one, Patricia, be the magic one. She’s firmly in the SJW, diversity-heavy camp that would, upon realizing she’s made that decision, second guess it and ask if she should go for the less obvious setup.
But that’s manifestly not the right choice here. The point of Laurence and Patricia, in the end, is that they’re characters who are heavily defined by what other people think they should be. It’s not, to be clear, that they’re stereotypes. They’re not. But they are characters who have been put into other people’s boxes, and starting them on the expected sides of a well-worn binary emphasizes that nicely. And not, to be clear, because they struggle and eventually escape those boxes, or even transcend them as such. Rather, because the boxes simultaneously work (since they’re in reality genre tropes and this is a genre novel) and don’t tell the whole story.
And it’s this latter part that’s where Anders really shines. Her prose style is long on laconic wit; it’s the sort of thing one wants to compare to Douglas Adams, but it’s such an overused comparison as to be useless, so let’s just go with a sequence from one of the four chapters that have already been released, since I don’t feel bad unpacking it. It begins with a young Laurence and Patricia sitting at the mall, each eating “a Double Chocolate Ultra Creamy Super Whip Frostuccino with decaf coffee in it, which made them feel super grown up,” and playing a game where they draw conclusions about people based on their shoes. For instance, “a girl in UGG boots was a supermodel,” whereas “the two women in smart pumps and nylons were Life Coaches who were coaching each other, creating an endless feedback loop” and “the man in black slippers and worn gray socks was an assassin.” Patricia and Laurence muse on how much you can tell about people from their shoes, and how their shoes are comparatively boring and reveal nothing about them. “That’s because our parents pick out our shoes,” Patricia replies. “Just wait until we’re grown up. Our shoes will be insane.”
This is followed by a section break, with the next section beginning, “In fact, Patricia had been correct about the man in the gray socks and black shoes. His name was Theodolphus Rose, and he was a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins,” and goes on to include mystical visions, crying over ice cream, and what it takes to get banned from the Cheesecake Factory. So the Douglas Adams comparison, at least, is for once justified, this being a more or less straight use of the trick Adams uses with transitions like “By a strange coincidence ‘None at all’ is exactly how much suspicion the ape-descendant Arthur Dent had that one of his closest friends was not descended from an ape, but was, in fact, from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.”
But what everyone forgets about that transition in Hitchhiker’s is the way it’s built to – it comes almost straight off the “locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’” joke, which is to say, as a transition between two very different ways in which Arthur Dent’s life is being screwed with by an indifferent and absurd bureaucracy. Likewise, Anders’s wonderfully structured transition is ultimately one about the nature of adulthood – between Patricia and Laurence’s undefined sense of what it might mean to a sequence that’s ultimately about Theodolphus’s flawed performance of adulthood.
There’s also, of course, that lovely detail of “our shoes will be insane,” which is the sort of bon mot that Anders litters throughout her novel. Other highlights, and by this I literally mean “ones I remembered to highlight after smiling or chuckling at them,” include “My life plan involves never understanding my parents. That’s like the cornerstone,” “that’s the definition of evil right there: not faking it like everybody else,” and, in what is possibly the most representative bit of the novel, “one day the Singularity would elevate humans to cybernetic superbeings, and maybe then people would say what they meant. Probably not, though.”
What makes these quips so good, I would argue, is not merely that they’re fantastically quotable and clever sentences that fill me with seething and furious envy at the gifts of an obviously superior writer, but the way they work within the novel – as boxes and identities to try on, be shaped by, and then outgrow or spill out of. They’re allowed to be true in the way that witty quips about the nature of life are true, and yet there’s no sentence or phrase within the novel that serves as anything so crass as a summing up.
Instead it has genre tropes, which give the world the sense of certainty and sense that confused people who are trying to get to grips with their identities by definition can’t. A chapter from the end, I had no idea how it could wrap up satisfyingly. Ten pages later, it had ended in a perfect and inevitable way.
It’s one of the best novels I’ve read in recent memory. It deserves acclaim and success. It’s out in a couple of months, and I can’t wait, because it’s the novel we need right now. It’s fresh and vibrant and brilliant and funny and true and painful, and proof that we can’t let the world end just yet, because we still have too much good science fiction and fantasy to create before we go extinct.