All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. TOR Books, 2016. 9780765379948.
Gene: I think my pitch for this book to you was, “This book is breaking my heart.” I couldn’t read very much of it at a time. I think I started it in July or August, but I didn’t finish it until December after we decided to do it as a book club. I think I was just so upset by the early chapters… but they were also so beautiful, so beautifully done.
Sarah: I remember you telling me that it was great and that it kept changing genres, it kept breaking your expectations. And I thought, “I would read it for that.”
G: Breaking expectations and also my heart. In a way that kind of put it in that Neil Gaiman area.
S: It really feels like a Neil Gaiman book.
G: But that’s not fair. It’s very much its own thing.
S: It’s not written like a Neil Gaiman book, it feels like a Neil Gaiman book. You end up with the same feeling in your body.
G: Right. Plus there’s more science.
S: There are two kids in the same town, and one of them is drawn to animals and one of them is drawn to science and neither of them have families that really support them at all.
G: Oh, their families are so awful.
S: Both of them have almost no friends at school.
G: The girl is Patricia and the boy is Laurence.
S: And there’s these just beautiful little things about them that completely establish their characters so that you sympathize with them. They’re having a terrible time at school.
G: And they’re drawn together. We should say that she is a witch. She can talk to birds.
S: Yeah, except then she kind of loses that for a while?
G: There’s this great thing when they’re six, and she goes out into the woods. She’s trying to keep an injured bird alive, and she finds out she can talk to it.
S: And the bird says, “Stop helping me! This is not helpful!”
G: She finds the Parliament of Birds in this big old tree and the birds tell her she’s a witch. And they ask her a riddle. What was the riddle?
S: “Is a tree red?”
G: Which plays in to the story much later. It goes throughout the whole book. So she feels like she has a destiny. And then it switches to Laurence. Laurence is the science guy. He makes a time machine.
S: Yes, he finds designs on the Internet and makes a watch that helps him travel back…
G: No, forward! Two seconds in time.
S: Two seconds.
G: …when he presses a button. It looks like a wristwatch. He wants to go see the launch of this do-it-yourself spaceship at MIT. And his parents are just…
S: Patricia’s parents are social climbers, they’re ambitious.
G: But Laurence’s parents are safe. Anders says they’re spreadsheet people. (I’m working that into my vocabulary.) They won’t take any risks. They used to be interesting, but now they’re not. They’ve zoned out. Laurence’s dad won’t take him to see the launch so he steals money out of his mom’s purse and goes. And he finds his people.
G: There’s a sense that Patricia finds her people in the birds and Laurence finds his people at MIT. He gets to see the rocket…
S: And everybody on the rocket team has the same time travel watch that he does.
G: They’ve all figured it out, and he’s the youngest guy who’s ever made the time machine.
S: And one of them says, “When you turn 18, you need to call us.” Which is almost the same thing the birds said, “At some point you’re going to be a witch.”
G: So they have these destinies, and there’s this huge amount of time in between. There is no f’ing Hogwarts, there is no place for either of them to go. They are just stuck in high school, not just nerds but outcasts of the nerd communities.
S: They’re in a nightmarish middle school. And the guidance counselor! (laughs)
G: The guidance counselor is out to kill them.
S: Yes. The guidance counselor is a part of a hidden society of assassins. He had a vision of the future that indicated that the two of them would end the world. So he’s taken it upon himself to kill them, except the brotherhood of assassins told him he’s not allowed to kill children. And poisoned his ice cream to try to stop him from doing it.
G: While he’s having dessert in a Cheesecake Factory! It’s such a funny book! There’s that whole sequence when he first enters the book where the kids are at the mall, he’s looking for the kids, but since he’s from this guild of assassins he doesn’t know how to navigate a mall. He’s just so overwhelmed by the whole mall-ness of it. And the kids are looking at everybody’s shoes.
S: And he has weird shoes.
G: Patricia sees his shoes and says, “That guy’s an assassin!” And she’s right! Patricia and Laurence are there eating something and talking about people’s shoes…
S: Making up stories about people’s lives.
G: There’s a sadly profound moment where she says, “Our parents buy our shoes now. But wait until we grow up. Our shoes are going to be insane.” Which is beautiful. (I had to put the book down for a while.) And then it goes to this really funny bit with the assassin in the Cheesecake Factory, trying to decide if his ice cream is poisoned!
S: And then he becomes their guidance counselor! He’s weirdly trying to gaslight them and trying to get them to kill each other.
G: He and circumstances manage to turn them against each other. I think that’s were I slowed down. I was so broken hearted. Laurence is just ignoring her, and then the guidance counselor tells her she has to kill him. I thought, “Jeez, is the rest of the book going to be in this miserable school?” I just sat with it for a long time. At some point soon after it jumps forward to when they’re adults. She’s a witch, and he’s now working for some tech mogul trying to change the world. All you know about the assassin’s vision is that there’s going to be a final war between science and magic and the kids will be at the center of a catastrophe. And that’s the rest of the book.
S: The birds sort of warned her about this also, so it’s not just the assassin who thinks something bad is going to happen. But there’s whole chunks of the book where I forgot that, because it was so interesting to follow these people. If you told me “Magic vs Science” I would have had a very different idea of what this book would be.
G: I hadn’t even gotten that far in the book when I told you about it. I was so stuck on when Laurence built the supercomputer in his closet…
S: Oh my god! The supercomputer!
G: He’s trying to bring an AI to life. He gives the computer an Internet messaging account and he gives its IM contact info to Patricia and then he forgets about it. She’s the one who talks to it.
S: Even when he won’t talk to her anymore, and she’s heartbroken and doesn’t know what to do, she’ll text this AI.
G: It’s called ChangeMe.
S: This AI can’t really give her advice, because it’s not very smart. And then at some point… it is.
G: Or it seems to be.
S: Something happens, and it seems to gain consciousness.
G: I found that when the story jumped forward it was way less painful for me. Because suddenly they were adults, making decisions. They’d had crappy childhoods and they were still making stupid decisions, but it wasn’t as heartbreaking as kids living under the boots of shitty parents. I think this is a total YA novel. I’m a little disappointed it’s not marketed as YA.
S: When I got out of their teen years, I thought, “This isn’t a YA novel anymore.”
G: The characters are too young for it to be a YA novel, then they’re too old. But if you had given me this book when I was in high school, I would have read the crap out of it.
S: Oh, yeah. Because it absolutely reads like adult novels that I give to teens all the time. I think one of the McElroy brothers said that he would pay good money for a service that wouldn’t spoil the end of a movie but would tell you how it would make you feel at the end.
G: So how will this book make you feel at the end?
G: It gives you hope.
S: It gives you hope for kids and hope for people.
G: But I’m still carrying the oogy feelings from the middle of the book.