Oct 11, 2016

Otherland Speculative Fiction Book Club:

“All the Birds in the Sky” – a tonal cacophony

by Walter Phippeny

When I picked up Charlie Jane Anders debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky, and read the synopsis, I was drawn to the idea of clashing genres. It has always struck me that there's not a ton of difference between the Death Star and the One Ring: they are both powered by plotcraft, just running on different kinds of fuel. So, I was immediately interested in the idea of fixing the fuels and seeing what happens.

Basically, Laurence is a "mad scientist/ inventor" while Patricia is a "witch". You see? Magic and Science living in the same narrative! They meet as children when they are at the start of their “powers” developing, and live through some adventures. Time passes, and the two reconnect as adults; the world is thrown into chaos from environmental upheaval. But who is to blame? And what should humanity do about it? Maybe we should have a war between “science” and “magic”? 

As the book starts out, the tone of the novel matched its child characters perfectly. I was lulled into the idea that this was going to be yet another addition to the massive growing canon of YA literature. Here's an example that sparked some genuine laughter from me:

“Laurence had just figured out that “unflappable” did not have anything to do with whether people could mess up your clothing, and now he used that word as much as he could.          
“I am unflappable,” Laurence told the bus driver. Who shrugged, as if he'd thought so  too, once upon a time, until someone had flapped him.” 

But, as the book continued, it started getting very adult, very fast. Anders had established one tone, and then moved into something very different without much warning or notice, and the effect was just as jarring as listening to a quirky piece of music in G major that abruptly switches into a dramatic, cosmic struggle in D Minor without running through the different keys first that allow you to make that kind of transition. 

The narrative would also take on aspects of satire and parody where Anders was obviously making fun of the tech scene in the Bay Area, but it wasn't clear if she was also making fun of her own characters, or not. For example, the characters are having a scene in a very organic, locally sourced, artisanal cafe; the author is taking up the page space to describe something out of “Portlandia” to us and place her characters in it. Um, why are the characters here? We tend to look down on people who go to such places. Are we supposed to be looking down on the characters too? Is Anders making fun of the Bay Area, her characters, or all of it in a blast of mega-cynicism? Is she also making fun of us, the reader, for reading her book? Is the joke on everybody? It's not clear. 

The central problem with this book consists of exactly this chaos: the plot moves randomly while non-believable attempts are made to justify it. The plot was driving the characters. Why does Patricia have this emotional landscape right now? The plot demands it. Why is Laurence suffering from this existential crisis? The plot has decreed. By the end of the book, I found myself trudging through it like a nature hike that had started in sun shine, but ended in a thunder storm: no matter how wet and miserable you get, you just have to make it through to the end. 

In the discussion at Otherland, some of us aired our grievances, but there were other readers in the group who quite liked it. What I saw as chaos, they saw as playful. What I resented as plot driven narrative, they enjoyed as light hearted drama. If all of my arguments sound too nitpicky for a genre mashup, adventure tale, then you might well like this one. To each their own.  

After reading the book, I looked deeper into Ms. Anders, subscribing to her Twitter feed, looking through her articles on i09, and watching an interview or two. I must confess my disappointment that someone who obviously has such a deep understanding of narrative and structure would fall into so many of the same traps. This is a debut novel, after all; maybe her next book will be better.

Editor's note: You can also check out Walter's blog, Tales from the MegaSphere.

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