What happens when two middle school friends bond and break up over being bullied, grow up, grow apart, reconnect and also have to stop the end of the world? A lot, as you might expect. All the Birds in the Sky is written by Charlie Jane Anders, who is the editor-in-chief for io9.com and an award-winning short fiction writer. Her ability to write fully-developed, likeable, flawed characters is at its best as we follow Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a tech genius, from childhood to adulthood. We’re with them as they face normal human issues like challenging parents, horrid bullies, and assorted social situations, while also dealing with their own unusual abilities. Even background characters have enough personality that you find yourself getting attached. It’s never good to get attached in a book about the apocalypse, by the way.
The book follows a mostly chronological structure, largely from the viewpoints of Patricia and Laurence, with a flashback or another character’s POV placed here and there to great effect. As much as there is happening in this book, the plot is not at all convoluted and the conversational prose keeps things flowing. The structure and pacing of it all give the reader needed beats of pause, while keeping you hooked and turning pages. Anders drops breadcrumbs right from the start, to foreshadow where things are headed, good and bad. The near-future setting of the book, after climate change has wreaked much havoc — basically planting humanity one big storm from the end — feels a little too plausible for comfort. (Probably because it is. Anders enlisted the help of a host of scientists and futurists to get it right.) This is balanced by the humor and whimsy in the magical realm, including sassy talking animals, super-potent cocktails and astral projection induced by spicy food.
While the book is about Laurence and Patricia, it’s also about the relationship between science and magic. As kids, they (mostly) support each other in their oddness, bonded by their mutual status as outcast weirdos. Laurence works on death rays and AI in his bedroom, and Patricia can talk to animals sometimes, and sort of fly sometimes. There are middle-school hiccups, but from the beginning, these two work together; for them, magic and science are not at odds in the least. As the story progresses, we learn more about the world of magic and the work of the Elon Musk-ish tech genius who thinks humans need an exit strategy for the end of Earth. Magic and science head more and more towards conflict, thought ultimately they both want the same thing — to save humanity. Of course, the two sides have very different ideas of what that means and methods of getting it done. Laurence and Patricia, each with their understanding of the other side, become the key to survival. I don’t think it’s a spoiler or shocking to say that science and magic will have to work together for the common good. I quite like how it happens, though.
In a story of true messy love and friendship, Anders raises a lot of fantastic questions about nature, science, ethics, and where humanity is headed. She’s clearly wondering how technology and nature are going to co-exist, but never takes a side. Perhaps a good way to explain this is that there is not only a very huggable tree, but a very huggable AI, too. What I’m really saying is, you should read this book. It is painful and beautiful and delightful, scary and hopeful all at once.