Being an outsider is never an easy thing.
It can be wondrous, freeing, the granter of wildly unexpected perspectives and a sense of being uniquely set apart; but it can also leave you feeling lonely, socially crucified and ill-adept and wondering if there is a place for you in this wildly complex, often singularly monocultural world of ours.
As someone who spent his entire time at school, well and truly apart from the pack, not so much by choice as by the circumstance of being chosen as the eternal object of bullying and teasing by my peers, I am all too well acquainted with this weirdly unsettling, distressing but eventually, when you’re able to appreciate its virtues, state of being.
As unfortunately are the joined-forever-at-the-hip protagonists of io9 editor Charlie Jane Anders’ luminously rich, authentically-grounded but otherworldly debut novel All the Birds in the Sky.
Patricia and Laurence are wildly different people – she is a strange, connected to nature in a way she doesn’t quite understand witch while he is a nerd who builds a time machine that catapults him two seconds into the future (handy when bullies’ fists are incoming) and creator of an in-wardrobe AI named Peregrine – but both share the dubious fate of never quite fitting in, either with their families or their school peers.
“Laurence didn’t really need to hang out with Patricia at school, because he only needed her to vouch for his after-school time, and maybe weekends. But he felt awkward sitting by himself when she also sitting by herself, usually frowning out the nearest window. And he found himself curious to ask her stuff and see how she responded – because he never, ever knew what Patricia would say about anything. He only knew it would be something weird.” (P. 55)
So far so standard; we’ve seen these character tropes in a million different books before.
What sets Patricia and Laurence apart from the genre pack is that there is a real guttural sense of bewilderment, at least at first, at their place in life; even discovering that they have amazing gifts and abilities – Patricia can talk to animals and heal people while Laurence is so scientifically gifted that he attracts the attention of domineering tech billionaire Milton Dirth at a very early stage – doesn’t magically (pun intended) change the fabric of their lives.
They still struggle to relate to their parents, relate to their peers and experience an almost crippling loss of ability to function effectively in life; so no magic bullet there.
What their unique and at times painful place in life grants them, apart from the sort of perspective that those most firmly in the herd never get to view, is a thoroughly unique trajectory through life, a bond that moves from friends to frenemies to estrangement and then love, in a way that is never heavyhanded or treacly, throughout the course of the book which moves between several key periods in their young lives.
And which asks where their unusual life circumstances might take them in the future.
A future, which as the book plays out, is one increasingly bedevilled by the civilisation-shaking effects of climate change and the destructive international political tensions that engenders.
As an author with a keen interest in how technology and nature work together, Anders posits Patricia and Laurence as unwitting standard standard bearers of the magic/nature vs. science debate.
At various times the two are on the same side, different sides and then the only ones with any real hope of saving humanity from itself, but whatever their places together or apart, Anders imbues their relationship and its ability to make a real difference on a very troubled near-future version of Earth with heart, intelligence, quite a bit of wit (one secondary character fears a possible apocalypse because of the preponderance of acoustic guitar music in these scenarios) and a real sense of time and place.
She deftly and pleasingly blends science fiction and fantasy, giving us a world that is both instantly recognisable and just a few degrees off normal, one in which science and magic have equal places at the table if only they can learn to see this.
“Patricia was rising off the ground. Laurence had thought she couldn’t fly, but there she was. She floated on the wind, like a balloon some kid has lost at the fairground. Patricia was so close to Laurence, closer than she’d been in months, but he had no way to get to her. He called out, but she couldn’t hear him over the white noise. He screamed her name until his voice was shot.” (P. 336)
This mix of the natural and the supernatural, science and civilisation is intoxicatingly and wondrously summoned, with Anders light touch granting an often dark narrative a lightness of being that it might not otherwise possess.
All the Birds in the Sky is a novel for the thinkers and dreamers, the romantics and realists, with everyone, no matter who they may be, having a seat at the table.
Anders makes it clear through each and every exquisitely-written page, each and every tender moment and fractious confrontation, that adversity does not serve the greater good at all and that despite the great differences that exist, that coming together, no matter how divergent our positions and how inside or outside the mainstream we may be, is the only way for humanity and the planet as a whole to move forward in any lasting and meaningful way.