The bookshelf here beside me contains many of the paperback classics I read in college. I’ve kept them all these years of my life, packing them up and moving them wherever I’ve gone. You’d recognize them — Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Robert Pen Warren’s All the King’s Men, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Dickens’ Hard Times, Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of MidLothian, and on I could go. But what’s missing on these shelves are the science fiction classics I read: H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and others I can’t recall. I think I gave them away or left them behind somewhere.
I never leave books behind. My double-stacked shelves and books on top of books on top of books on top of tables are a testament to that, but science fiction isn’t what I like to read. So why did I recently pick up Charlie Jane Anders’ new book, a sci-fi fantasy, All the Birds in the Sky?
What I’ve learned from reading Anders’ science fiction fantasy novel (which I enjoyed) and other science fiction I’ve tried and enjoyed (Jeff Vandermeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy, Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear) is that I’m okay with science fiction as long as there’s not a new world I need to understand with a tongue-twisting vocabulary of geographic labels, human class hierarchies and referential touch points that don’t stick with me. The previously mentioned books didn’t have that. The Southern Reach Trilogy, in fact, captivated me.
A couple months ago, I asked Mark, a manager at Half Price Books who often joins the WOSU book show, to recommend a science fiction book for me. Mark reads a lot of science fiction, and he handed me Neil Stephenson’s popular novel Snow Crash, which The New York Times said is “brilliantly realized.” By page two, I’m reading about the arachnofiber weave of the Deliverator’s uniform, the Giga Highlands and a Burbclave, which cause my reading mind to stumble and freeze. (Darn it!) For perspective, I tell myself, I suppose this is similar to someone wanting to read one of those classic novels I listed above but choking on Victorian prose or falling asleep over it. To make the point, I’ll just type in here the first line of The Heart of Midlothian: “The times have changed in nothing more (we follow as we were wont the manuscript of Peter Pattieson) than in the rapid conveyance of intelligence and communication betwixt one part of Scotland and another.”)
All the Birds in the Sky smoothly rides on uber technology, which includes an intelligent super computer, emotional robots and an antigravity machine. It also engages the mystical, with a parliamentary tree populated by talking birds sitting in council. The story begins with an overwhelmed, young witch named Patricia Delfine, who understands what they’re saying and also struggles to understand her powers. She befriends the super-smart Lawrence Armstead at school, a geeky, bullied boy who’s invented a time machine that jumps ahead two seconds, so he can escape the bullies’ torments. This middle school section of the story lacks provocative intrigue and falls short in texture and energy compared to the rest of the book, when 10 years later, the two friends come together again in San Francisco. Patricia consorts with other witches, and Lawrence creates a wormhole generator that opens a pathway to infinity. His boss wants to assure the preservation of the human race in case of a doomsday scenario. Patricia’s full powers come into play when that day arrives, going to war to destroy Lawrence’s gravity-defying machine because it will tear a hole in the earth and destroy the natural world — those creatures whose languages Patricia understands. Meanwhile, these two protagonists who are at odds with one another are also in difficult love.
Even though Anders wrestles with global catastrophe and ethical issues, she doesn’t take herself or the robots and super machines too seriously. There’s plenty of humor, and the story sparkles with inventiveness. In the end, everything wraps up believably, and not too neatly, either, which makes the story even more credible. And so, I’ll add All the Birds in the Sky to the list of science fiction I’ve read and enjoyed, but you won’t find it on my bookshelves. I borrowed it from the library. And Snow Crash? That’s right here, tempting me to try it again before I next see Mark, and return it.