If All the Birds in the Sky needed to be summed up in one succinct sentence, perhaps this would suffice: Boy meets girl in near-future pre-apocalypse. Except that brief summary wouldn’t do at all. What appears as one thing turns out to be something else entirely; nothing is straightforward or clear-cut in Charlie Jane Anders’s marvellous debut novel.
Things are not just one thing; they are many things – or they have the potential to be. This book explores the idea of multiple eventualities as well as the notion of fixed destinies; the randomness of events versus their inevitability. It is about the complexity of identity, of society and of planet Earth itself – a world with an ecosystem that functions in an incomprehensible way to us (despite how humanity tricks itself into thinking we understand more than we do). The story is set in a world close enough to our own to feel familiar, yet on the brink of an unimaginable ecological disaster and worldwide political collapse – a terror that builds increasingly throughout the novel.
But let’s talk about the novel’s heart(s): Laurence and Patricia. Two juvenile outcasts, completely disillusioned with their education, different from their peers and estranged from the parents. Amid the chaos of their own lives, they discover that they are kindred spirits, drawn towards each other despite their fundamentally different perspectives on the world around them. Laurence Armstead is the tech-genius who dreams of rocket ships, time travel and sentient AI; Patricia Delfine has a special relationship with nature, believes in magic and speaks to animals. Both of them, in their own fully realised ways, want to save the world. As young adolescents, these two forge a powerful connection, yet following awful circumstances beyond their control they soon drift apart for years, until meeting again by chance (or is it?) in their mid-20s.Charlie Jane Anders has crafted a phenomenal book. This is a debut novel which feels expertly developed, as if Anders has been pondering over the idea for years, meticulously piecing and weaving its many parts together. It merges science fact with fantasy; it blends a children’s tale of magic with YA character arcs and eventually mature, adult themes. From advanced robotics, Singularity theory and wormhole physics to magical lore, witches’ curses and talking trees, this book melds all the genre tropes you can think of without any of it seeming stale or imitative. (You’d expect nothing less from a contributing mind behind Gawker’s fantastic Io9.)
Few authors manage this well with their first published novel. Charlie Jane Anders has a soaring, soulful imagination, and All the Birds in the Sky is at once heartbreaking and jubilant, and full to the brim with wonder.
All the Birds in the Sky was published by Titan Books on 26 January 2016