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All the Birds in the Sky cover

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

- "The Ballad of East and West," Rudyard Kipling

Reading All the Birds in the Sky, the first genre novel from Hugo-award winner and former editor of io9, Charlie Jane Anders, reminded me of past visits to those particular sorts of home in which one encounters a generosity at once warm and fierce. In these places, one generally sees dark wood and ancient sofas. Fuzzy blankets and dazzling art. Fascinating gadgets and bizarre statues. Often, a glass of wine, or cup of tea, or whatever you preferred, finds its way into your hand before you even know it’s what you need. In these places, everyone is made to feel welcome. Anyone, or anything, whose spirit persists in being unwelcoming has, in fact, some time ago been shown the door. The result of all this is that, for the most part and for most people, it doesn’t matter who you were or where you came from. In this place, for this night, you are home. These are your people [1].

Two people form the heart of All the Birds in the Sky. In one corner, we have Patricia, a witch who first glimpsed the world of magic when, as a child, a wounded sparrow led her to the Parliament of Birds: one of the feathered MPs there asks her a question (“Is a tree red?”) that Patricia doesn’t understand, and whose elusive answer haunts her till the end of the novel. In the other corner, we have Laurence (don't call him Larry), a tech-genius type that birthed AI in his closet and whose two-second time machine proves a shibboleth that garners him an invitation into the world of super-cool-shiny rocket scientists.

Both Patricia and Laurence are unhappy, to briefly contradict Tolstoy, in a more or less similar way. Namely, they feel magical and brilliant and picked on and alone and no one seems to care as much about this state of affairs as they do. At least, that is, until they meet each other. They both also long for escape: one into the woods; one into the stars. For Patricia, the thing about nature is that, "It's real. It's messy. It's not like people" (p. 48). For Laurence, the thing about science is that it promises control. Early on in their friendship, he demonstrates for Patricia his “remote-controlled cyborg cockroach kit” (p. 69). He fears that she will finally call him out as a creep (a not inappropriate response, perhaps, considering his mad, scientific glee: “Here’s where you connect it to the roach’s central nervous system, so it will obey all of your fiendish commands”), but Patricia does no such thing. She announces the inevitable rise of roach-borgs and, adopting the voice of the Borg themselves, proclaims, “Doritos are irrelevant” (p. 70).

Anders here, and throughout her novel, echoes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that reveled as much in sarcasm as melodrama, and which deployed elements of genre (fairy tale, pop culture, myth, fantasy, and science fiction) in a manner seriously irreverent and entirely celebratory. Some, presumably, found that universe’s willingness to pick and choose from any genre at any moment, sometimes seemingly at random, a mark of laziness; while others, for example me, found in it the sort of brilliant escapism that stories following more rigid definitions of science fiction and fantasy could never afford. I imagine many readers will feel the same way about All the Birds in the Sky, as one encounters among its pages much in the way of wit and romance, as well as a hodgepodge of sci-fi and fantasy tropes: mechas! death rays! schools of magic! dimensional portals! genre-crossed lovers! It’s not quite the same level of ecstatic world-building as in Harkaway’s Gone-Away World (2008), as here the tropes and their origins remain both entirely recognizable [2] and—until later in the novel—contained within their respective character’s viewpoints; but, nonetheless, it contains its share of surprises, my favorite of which might be Theodolphus Rose, a member of The Nameless Order of Assassins, whose tragicomic arc almost succeeds in knocking the ne’er-do-wells of Infinite Jest’s (1996) “Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents” from atop my list of favorite mercenary and murderous fiends.

As time goes on, Patricia and Laurence, driven by their differing desires, aptitudes, and personalities, drift apart. Patricia escapes home by matriculating through the magical academy, Eltisley Maze, befriending such people as Dorothea, who traffics in glamours, and Ernesto—who, in his penchant for bringing everything around him that is alive to even greater life, reminded me of the forest’s god in Princess Mononoke (1997). Laurence finds a place among the acolytes of one Milton Dirth, an Elon Musk type garbed in a distinctly Jobsian ensemble of turtleneck and sandals. He dates a brilliant woman named Serafina and rooms with Isobel, the woman who showed him his first rocket. Patricia and Laurence find, in their respective communities, a new degree of acceptance and freedom, as well as new sets of rules and customs. Patricia learns of the two different forms of magic (trickster and healer), as well as the importance of being humble (one should serve nature, control is an illusion) and not trying to change too much too fast (such as by curing individuals of AIDS or, for example, leading a group of witches and wizards in an attack on an oil rig). Laurence learns of the inevitable collapse of Earth (whether now or later, due to climate change or supernova) and the importance, nay the destiny, of mankind: To Save the World!—or, at least, well, the humans that live on said world which are really the most important part anyway, right?

When the two finally meet again as adults, at a rooftop fundraiser where Patricia waitresses (as overeducated and underemployed as any student of the humanities might expect), Laurence, the wunderkind of the tech world, swoops in—literally jumping from an autocopter—to acquire a company which is researching portal technology. They find themselves lost to each other. Laurence believes in, let’s call it Human Exceptionalism:

"We’ve got to get off this rock [ . . . ]As far as we know, we’re the only intelligent, technological civilization ever to develop, in the entire universe. There’s complex life all over the place, but we’re still basically unique. We have a fucking duty to preserve that. At all costs.” (pp. 175-176)

Patricia believes in, let’s call it Radical Interconnectedalism:

"But this planet is not just some ‘rock.’ It’s not just some kind of chrysalis we can shed, either. You know? It’s, it’s more than that. It’s us. And this isn’t just our story. As someone who’s spoken to lots of other kinds of creatures, I kinda think they might want a vote.”

Laurence tries to backtrack from this, saying that he “didn’t mean to suggest that anybody ought to write anything off” (p. 177). But, Patricia doesn’t believe him. And, you get the idea that perhaps Laurence doesn’t believe himself, either. Where once the two bonded over the shared weirdnesses of their various curiosities, they find themselves now, after having cocooned within their separate cultures—with separate friends, histories, beliefs, and customs—to have grown into two strangers, who might once have fallen in love, but now only shout their codified credos past each other, separated by a common language.

Before the 1830s (as reckoned by some calendars, let's not presume our way of counting time as the only way), the words “physicist” and “scientist” didn't exist. In the preceding centuries, the likes of Isaac Newton or Benjamin Franklin made do with labels such as “natural philosopher” or “that crazy guy down the road what keeps flying his damn kite in the middle of a thunderstorm.” But during that decade, a wise fellow deciding to follow the fine example of the word ‘artist,’ crafted two new words indicating once’s artistic pursuit of more scientific concerns. This is a fact much remarked on in a lecture delivered by C. P. Snow in 1959 titled "The Two Cultures," in which he lamented the divergent cultures of art and science.

. . . at the heart of thought and creation we are letting some of our best chances go by default. The clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures—of two galaxies, so far as that goes—ought to produce creative chances [and] the chances are there now. But they are there, as it were, in a vacuum, because those in the two cultures can’t talk to each other.[3]

Snow's description of art and science, and in particular the seeming pride in one's ignorance of the other (and the implicit, sometimes explicit, contempt contained therein), became a fulcrum around which scientists, writers, and pundits of the past half-century have gathered to pitch their own thoughts on art and science and the ways in which the twain shall or must or never. In 1962, F. R. Leavis, a literary critic, derided both Snow’s speech and his person, pointing out that Snow, a scientist turned bestselling writer whose works Leavis found plodding, had no business even calling himself a novelist. Perhaps Leavis had not taken kindly to Snow’s lamenting that writers cared not enough for thermodynamics. In 2016, J. Bradford Hipps, in a more genteel tone, lamented software developers’ penchant for not studying enough Virginia Woolf.

Snow’s description of divergent cultures, and their occasionally surprising contempt for the other, also, as it happens, provides a nice blueprint for understanding many other divides. Arguing over art and science, after all, is not that different from arguing over realist or non-realist fiction, or, for that matter, Star Wars and Star Trek (or unicorns and zombies). I have a M.S. in Electrical Engineering and a M.F.A. in creative writing. I love Star Wars and Star Trek, though for very different reasons. I’m more of a bad-ass unicorn person, myself. Sometimes the cultural divides seem mostly made-up and a pretense for arguing about imaginary things. Sometimes, I don’t really know what all the fuss is about. Sometimes, I do.

Sometimes I think it’s two things, more or less.

1) Generally, we have, as Snow points out about Britain, cultivated an assembly-line system of education in which authority figures work to mold children into tools capable of performing specific functions. These same figures present art and science as entirely separate disciplines and, in so doing, both consciously and unconsciously emphasize and, over time, exaggerate their difference. One is good for the rational, tangible, measurable world. The other is good for sculpting your face out of macaroni. Science and art (and to a lesser extent realist and non-realist fiction) have in consequence been seen as opposing methods of investigating the world. And, for a long time, perhaps, this worked. It won’t for much longer, though. Machines are too good at being mechanical for humans to compete with them.

2) People very often get carried away with themselves. Particularly, in the pursuit of belonging. A great many adults, despite having grown through the trauma of being labelled as Other, forget how to see past labels once they've found a label, or hashtag, that suits them (#teammagic? #teamscience?). People enjoy belonging to things, after all. And one of the best ways to prove that you belong to things is, of course, to point out that other people don’t belong to those things to which you belong. Way to go, people! Or as Anders put it in her final essay for io9: “There’s a lot more silly gatekeeping in science fiction than there used to be. A lot of people are deeply invested in keeping other people from loving the things that they love. No, I don’t get it, either.” [4]

Anders writes with and around the cultural divide that defines her novel. In The History of Science Fiction(2005), Adam Roberts, in speaking of the culture of science fiction, proposes that we can, broadly speaking, classify its stories into those concerned with technology and those concerned with scientific ideas. This could just as well be applied to fantasy—some books being more concerned with the products of its magical world like spells or institutions and some books being more concerned with the nature of magic itself. Anders employs both, or possibly neither, methods here. Her magical world contains a rational history and set of institutions, but, unlike say, Harry Potter, Anders’s spells generally require more magic than a certain phrase properly enunciated, instead needing from the recipient a numinous sort of sacrifice. The same holds true in the world of science, as rational concerns of climate collapse run up against mechas and apocalyptic doomsday devices. In the end, it seems like it doesn’t really matter which world, or culture, you choose. Magic and science, this novel would have us believe, exist as cultures more similar than they imagine, both driven by such mad passions as curiosity and control.

As the novel nears its close, the conflict between magic and science reaches a nigh-apocalyptic impasse. Laurence and his team design a wormhole device that will, very possibly, allow humanity to walk from one world to another. Everybody lives! It will also very possibly destroy Earth. Everything else dies! Patricia and her team, feeling that destroying the entire Earth for the sake of one species is dumb, decide to stop Laurence and his team from ever having a chance to turn on their Doomsday machine. There is a massive battle. Laurence has doubts about the machine himself, but, once under attack, makes a decision that leads to the death of one of Patricia’s friends. She, for her part, unleashes a storm of lightning on his precious machine. Our heroes, soldiers of their respective cultures, destroy everything the other held dear. In all the noise, as C. P. Snow pointed out with regards to art and science and Alien (1979) pointed out about space, no one can hear you scream.

In the aftermath of shattered hope and scorched wonder, the novel continues in a more elegiac tone. Sarcasm shuffles off in the face of floods of despair, not to mention the actual floods of climate change which, as foretold in our real world by various sources of non-fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and myth, make an appearance. “Everybody was singing madrigals,” we are told. “Tight staggered harmonies that rang with a lightness that had sharp pieces of melancholy embedded in it” (p. 341). You won’t find a better description of All the Birds in the Sky than that. It is a work of much heart and hope. Some may find the chumminess of its tone saccharine. Some may find the magic rendered with neither enough wonder nor irony. Some may find the science rendered with neither enough rigor nor reverence. Some may be annoyed at the novel’s marriage of conflicts as mundane as burnt casserole with those as miraculous as a witch, floating like a balloon, directing bolts of lightning into the throat of a mecha.

Some people are not me, though I did, on occasion, think some of what some people might think. For me, though, the way Anders wraps the struggle between magic and science in the same insistent, emphatic warmth delivers far too much pain and wonder and humor for such thoughts to sway my love for what is accomplished here. This is a novel that knows what it is and does what it wants to do. It ignores the precious distinctions between the genres of literature, even as it wanders down their precious corridors stealing whatever art from the walls strikes its fancy. It does not care for the values of tradition, except for those most traditional of values, kindness and sacrifice. As Anders went on to say in her goodbye from io9:

Science fiction is for everybody. Science fiction is for anybody who cares about science and futurism, and wants to imagine how the world will be, or could be, different. Science fiction is the truest expression of the terrifying beauty of life in an age where we wear computers (and maybe soon, computers will wear us.) You can’t own any of this, or deny anybody else their right to be both passionate and critical. If your life has been touched by science, then science fiction is for you.

And, so, at its heart, you might say that All the Birds in the Sky is about the divides between science fiction and fantasy, or science and art, or science fiction and, well, other kinds of science fiction. And this is true. It repeats time and again, after all, the dangers of culture, even as it celebrates that sense of belonging which a shared sense of culture provides. It knows that culture provides us both a home and a door to shut in someone else’s face.

But, this would be a limited reading, I think, if that is all one took away. Because at the heart of this book is two hearts, two magical machines composed of equal parts muscle and imagination. By focusing on the similarities of Patricia and Laurence, while not diminishing the differences that tear them apart, Anders has created a new-fangled, old-fashioned, scientific romance. In these two characters, we find much to love and hate and for which to long and cheer (when those two kids finally start talking to each other again, look out world!) And, in their stories, we find a pair of mirrors in which to reflect on the lengths we’re willing to go in the name of acceptance, of ourselves and others. In the end, they, like all of us, face the question of which is more important: belonging to a community, belonging to themselves, or belonging to each other. It’s an impossible question, of course.

You may as well ask if a tree is red. Here we are.

Endnotes

  1. I will not mind if the above paragraph has inspired in you the need for a glass of wine, or cup of tea, or whatever you prefer. Please, go ahead. Come back when you are appropriately liquidated. Wait. That doesn’t sound right. [return]
  2. A mark of a mash-up, versus, say, a remix. [return]
  3.  “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” by C. P. Snow. The Rede Lecture, 1959. Cambridge University Press. New York. 1961. [return]
  4.  “io9 Was Founded on the Idea That Science Fiction Belongs to Everyone.” io9. April 2016. [return]


Chris Kammerud’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Bourbon Penn, Phantom DriftInterfictions, and multiple times in Strange Horizons. He produces and co-hosts the short story discussion podcast Storyological. He is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and he holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi, where he studied as a Grisham Fellow. He lives in London with his partner. You can find him online at @cuvols or www.chriskammerud.com.
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