All The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
Synopsis: A pair of outcasts meet as children and overcome social isolation and opposing ideologies to become friends and save the world.
Book Review (Rational Fiction version): This must be done in two parts, because first I must address the Rational Fiction flavor of this book! This is the most only novel I know (so far) that captures the style of Rational Fiction without being Rational Fiction itself. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this, so let’s start with the conflict.
A foundation of RatFic is that there aren’t “good” and “evil” sides (per se)–there are factions with conflicting values who are intellectually consistent and morally good to themselves, but who clash over their differences. All The Birds does this thing, as the two protagonists are from opposing ideologies and are each other’s antagonists, and whenever you are reading a chapter from the POV of one of them you identify with that character, and you realize how right and proper their actions are, and why of course they must fight the stupid/bad actions of their opposition. The next chapter switches to the other character, and you feel the exact same thing from the other side. I love that sort of thing.
Secondly, both protags are child prodigies who are socially isolated because of their gifts. This isn’t a defining feature of RatFic per se, but it is a common theme, and it’s very HPMoR-esque, which kicked off the whole RatFic genre in the first place.
Third, it is comfortable in the language/culture of transhumanism. It isn’t a treatise on the movement or anything, but the author is either familiar with the movement, or had a lot of input from people who are. This feels like it was written by someone in the scene, and it’s refreshing to read something that comes from my culture! You don’t realize how alien the overwhelming majority of the world is until you stumble across something that feels like it came from your home group, and you can love it for the comforting family tale it is. I get fuzzies just thinking about it.
Fourth, the humor is straight-up Yudkowskian. If you liked the humor of HPMoR, you’ll likely enjoy the humor here too! It is slightly absurdist, but in a way that is delightful, like the assassin’s guild that requires its members to perform pro bono hits from time to time to remain in good standing. The word play is top-notch. And there are a fair smattering of the geeky pop-culture references, done just right, that we all love (ala Forks +2).
That being said, this is explicitly NOT Rationalist Fiction! The male hero starts the novel by crafting a 2-second time machine which apparently anyone can make if they have internet access, but most people don’t, and which isn’t abused or munchkined at all. There’s a TON of these throw-away things in the novel which could potentially break the world if an enterprising hero were to munchkin them into abuse, but which are never exploited in that way, because this isn’t RatFic. It’s a story of friendship, and love, and growing up, and it focuses on THAT. As long as you don’t expect RatFic-style exploitation, and accept this as a surreal fantasy story where everyone has a blindspot as to the game-breaking-potential of all the magic/gadgets around them, you’ll enjoy the hell out of it. :)
Book Review (Traditional Version): This is a beautiful story. I don’t know if anyone read the works of Daniel Pinkwater as a kid, but this novel feels exactly like I remember those. It is surreal in a way that allows the author to focus on the parts of reality that really MATTER to the story, and seriously drill into those. The story does not give any fucks about “realism.” In Pinkwater’s Lizard Music, for example, there are talking lizards who play jazz music on public access television after midnight. In a world that otherwise makes sense. There is no explanation given, it’s just a brute fact of the story world. All The Birds In The Sky has many similar things, straight-up absurdities which are fun and which don’t need explanation (like the 2-second time machine). They are quirky and delightful, and put you in the frame of mind that this is a fantasy for precocious, imaginative people that are willing to revert to a more child-like play state for the duration of a novel.
This is important, because much of this novel is an exploration of how we move from being wonder-filled children to jaded adults. Sooooo much of it is a commentary on Adulting. On trying to stay true to yourself in a world filled with mundane madness, with a sanity waterline so low it drives you to exasperation… and maybe conformity? This is a paean to anyone who still uses Adulting as a verb to proudly describe things they sometimes do, rather than a noun describing what they are.
And oh god, the childhood of these characters. It is my childhood. It is angst and isolation, and thinking if maybe you can do this one glorious thing it will all be different… but it never is. The parents are absurdly extreme in a way no real humans are, but in a way that speaks to the emotional reality of what it is to be a child. It sacrifices literalism to get to the emotional core of a world dominated by overwhelmingly powerful beings who cannot relate to or fully understand you.
The teen years too! The sexual struggles of the male character are the most true-to-life of any novel I’ve read, and I think it says something that a surrealist YA novel has come so much closer to portraying realistic sexuality than anything trying to be Serious and Literary.
The prose itself is just fantastic too. After a love scene between the male protagonist and his then-girlfriend, the final paragraph ends with
“When Laurence got back to bed, Serafina had fallen into a cold sleep, and her elbow jutted into him.”
It just ends like that, flat. And it’s the most beautiful way to say “They do not fit together. This relationship is awkward and uncomfortable and doomed to failure.” Because instead of just telling us that, it shows us it in the most physically-literal way possible. In just one sentence, describing a single action. And yet everything is wrapped up in exactly that one line, and it hits you and lingers, because that one line is all it took, and it did it via demonstration. There’s a number of these literary feats sprinkled throughout this book, and it’s perfect every time.
Also, it is written exactly the way I would talk with my friends! For example, there’s even a part where the two characters try to speak at once, and the next sentence is literally:
Then they were both like “You first.”
Which is awesome. :)
The book has a few weaknesses. Patricia’s stay at the Magic School (and the resulting Siberia Incident) never felt very fleshed-out or compelling to me. And the ending was a bit weak. But the beauty and wonder made up for it, for me. I don’t want to over-hype this, because nothing can live up to too much praise, and then one is disappointed. But I certainly enjoyed it. Highly Recommended.
Book Club Review: This review has gone on for quite a while already, so I’ll try to make this short. Not everyone liked this book as much. A couple of our members just couldn’t swallow the absurdist aspects. However, as a commentary on what sort of world we have built for ourselves as we became adults, and how we changed to accommodate that, it did give a group a couple interesting lines of conversation to talk about. The way it portrays environmentalism vs humanism, and the recklessness of over-ambitious leaders, is also intriguing. The fact that it isn’t too long and is a pleasant read helped with completion and turn out as well. Overall, this is makes for good book club reading/discussion. Recommended.
I will read this.
(Well, I’ll rip the audiobook from [redacted] and listen to it, but same difference, right?)
I’m actually pretty uncomfortable with this comment. I suspect the audio you refer to is pirated. For various reasons, I’d rather people didn’t encourage the piracy of works I review in the comments of that review…
I bought the book. I’ll read it eventually (I always have a queue so I seldom just buy something and read it). When I do, should l leave feedback at this post? Do you see comments to posts made 3 months after they are posted? Thanks
I do! I get a notification of any comments made regardless of how old the post is. Other readers probably won’t see it, but I’ll see get it. :)
I’m glad you’ll see it. I feel like if someone recommends a book to you, its courteous to let them know you’ve read it and what you think of it. And, applying the golden rule, if I were a blogger I’d want comments (within reason).
Just finished reading this novel an hour ago.
I do this thing where I keep a list online of books I want to read—and then by the time, typically months later, that I actually read a title from the list, I have entirely forgotten who recommended it or why I thought I would like it. I had already tried 3 or 4 things to figure out where this suggestion came from when it occurred to me to try searching your blog for the title.
So thanks for the recommendation! I am on a neverending quest to find books that make me feel the way The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern made me feel, and while this one still didn’t really, it came close in a couple of ways that nothing else has. (Obviously I am highly recommending The Night Circus if you’ve not read it!)
I agree with your praise of the prose. The book was beautifully written. There was at least one sentence per page I wanted to read aloud to my roommate on the other couch, except I realized that would probably be annoying for her. I remember being really struck by the line about how Patricia’s roommates “made their passive-aggressive lasagna,” which made me notice how good at worldbuilding Anders is despite the story being set in essentially our own world. Like, I love when an author can successfully convey how much /more/ world there is beyond the edges of the particular story she is telling you.
I disagree with your complaint about the Eltisley Maze content (or lack thereof). My jaw dropped with amazement when I realized that the narrative was going to elide over Patricia’s entire time at school in the break between Part 2 and Part 3. Like, any other author in this genre would have spent so many pages on the Wizard School part. Wizard School is basically a genre of its own. And don’t get me wrong, I love Wizard School stories. But I really respect the audacity of Anders for recognizing that this story didn’t actually need that part. Actually I really loved all 3 section breaks in the book. Sometimes when a TV episode has a really strong, tight cold-open and then smashes straight into the opening credits, it makes me really happy, and the opening 2 chapters followed by the section break made me grin similarly. And the time-skips between sections 2 & 3 and 3 & 4 were, as I intimated, really pleasantly surprising for me. I am reminded of Eliezer’s parable about the author who wrote all the exciting scenes of her novel first and then had an important realization—except Anders’ metric for what constitutes “exciting” is totally bonkers and involves completely skipping not only all of Wizard School but also the big climactic fight scene. It was just so intoxicatingly unlike what any other author would have done, while still totally working.
I do agree with you that the ending was somewhat rushed. And with your club member that the level of absurdism was kind of jarringly inconsistent sometimes. Like, the Nameless Order of Assassins was hilarious taken on its own but seemed juvenile and tonally out-of-place in comparison to the surrounding text.
Hey, thank you for writing! I am very happy that the review helped you find something you liked! And I love your point that “Anders’ metric for what constitutes “exciting” is totally bonkers.” :)
I just recently read this based on your recommendation. I know it’s been about 6 months since you reviewed this, but hopefully you receive a notice when someone comments on an old post.
I really enjoyed the book a lot. There are a number of things about it that are really beautiful. Some aspects of the main characters’ relationships, becoming adults etc. just worked and really walked the tightrope between tones just right.
That said, in some ways the book seemed more enjoyable than good. That’s a little imprecise, but some things didn’t fit quite right. The two second time machine and other details like that are fun and convey character quickly, but they do break some suspension of disbelief. The humor was fun and I laughed / smiled a lot as I read it, but again sometimes it breaks tone or suspension of disbelief. The ending was satisfying to me (though I know some reviewers didn’t like it), but also felt rushed.
A few impressions. The book in some ways reminded me a lot of early Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere / Stardust period) but with slightly better characterization but less lyrical descriptive language. A lot of the same humor, tone, sad tinge, and willingness to use fun throwaways comes through.
The other impression that I got is that the first half or more of the novel felt like reading a web serial rather than a book. My girlfriend had a good analogy for this, when you binge watch 3 hours of a TV show, it doesn’t feel like a movie, and if you watched 30 minutes of a movie every day for a week, it wouldn’t feel like TV. Something about the pacing and rhythm of the plot and chapter breaks just really felt web serial like. That’s not bad, I like web serials and have read several and actively follow a few in progress ones, but it was disorienting while reading a book.
Overall, I enjoyed reading it, thanks very much for recommending it.
I do get a notice. :)
The two-second time machine bothered me when I first read it for the same reason, but that was also what got me in the right mindset. Hitting me upside the head with such a blatent mis-use of a super-weapon for what is basically humor let me realize “Hey, this is absurdist fun times, get out of your analytic headspace.” It served for me the same function that the protagonist being covered in the blood of a policeman she murdered on page 1 of Library at Mt Char served. It let me know how I should adjust my mental mode for this story, and gives me a quick “If you don’t like this, you should nope the heck out right here” flag.
And yes, that is a great analogy! Thank you, and thanks for writing!