I’m coming late to the party on Charlie Jane Anders’ new novel All the Birds in the Sky. Things that are heavily acclaimed and lauded by critics can sometimes call on the cynic in me and I’ll dismiss it, but I’m glad I didn’t avoid this one for too long. The story to me is about two outcasts finding solace in one another. The rest is just window-dressing. This is all about Laurence and Patricia. It’s a twisty, weird love story.
This is going to be a strange book for a lot of people. It’s marketed as genre fiction and you could argue for its position as fantasy or science fiction but I would argue that this isn’t genre fiction at all. The core of the story is about the dynamic shared between Laurence and Patricia. Their relationship is the central catalyst that drives the plot. You could tell this story with any old set pieces, the sci-fi and fantasy elements are not intrinsic, they merely offer a context for the world building and the methods or vehicles by which they are separated and reunited.
This leads to a disconnection for those approaching this book expecting something firmly identifying itself with genre fiction. It’s probably going to piss people off. They might feel robbed, or that the sci-fi or fantasy setting is weak, and it is. But that’s the point, I think. It’s all about the interplay between the two main characters. I went at this expecting something more firmly in the genre fiction camp, and I was surprised by the shallow construction of these elements and the treatment secondary cast of characters. Upon finishing the book, though, this is what I took away as the intent. I liked it. The book really shines when Anders highlights the awkward fumbling between the two main characters as they sort themselves out and stumble upon who they are and what they believe in. It’s an ongoing process and it’s never perfect, just like it isn’t in life.
This was also one of the first novels I’ve read with themes and dialogue that I would consider resonate successfully with my generation’s geeky subculture. There are plenty of internet witticisms, cultural references and geek speak that will appeal to anyone of the Google age. Unlike other books, though, their delivery seemed natural and unforced which was pleasant to experience. I’ve read stuff from other writers that have tried the same thing and it ended up being horrible, heavy handed, insincere and painful. The ease with which Anders hit the right notes, for me at least, was impressive. I found myself looking forward to the interaction and interplay between the main characters. I wanted to see what they did or said to each other next and that is the sign of a successful story.
This is a great book, but you really need to keep an open mind and not go at this expecting hard genre fiction, despite the Hugo award nominations. This isn’t an epic, nor is it sweeping in scope. It’s just about two awkward kids.