Thursday, September 28, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders: A review

This is a book about the conflict between science and Nature/magic. It is also a book about the ethics of intervening to affect human affairs, either individually or the race writ large, even when the affecting agent means well or thinks he/she/it does.

Charlie Jane Anders tells the story as seen through the eyes of two characters, Patricia Delfine and Laurence (never Larry!) Armstead. They are both misfit kids who meet at school and become close as the two outcasts in their juvenile society.

Patricia is a dreamy child who loves Nature and loves going into the woods. Laurence is a science nerd who would probably never go outdoors if he could avoid it. Their friendship is challenged by demands from their respective families and from academia, but it faces even greater challenges because of their natural instincts and abilities. Patricia is a witch who can practice magic and talk to the birds. Laurence is a wizard of a different kind - a tech wunderkind who invents a time machine that can jump him two seconds into the future.

As I began reading this book, I worried that I had gotten myself into something extremely unpleasant. These children have terrible childhoods. Their parents are clueless and their peers are all sadistic bullies. Their teachers and school administrators are simply concerned with keeping everyone in line. Why would I put myself through reading 300-400 pages of this?

Fortunately, Anders performs her own time travel magic and transports the reader forward, first by seven years and then ten, to a time when Patricia and Laurence are young adults who have survived their tormentors.

The time is the near-future and the two young people are reunited after years of estrangement and rekindle their friendship as their world faces catastrophe. Cataclysmic storms and earthquakes threaten to tear the planet apart. Apocalypse looms and Patricia and Laurence search for ways to use their respective powers to help the situation and avert disaster. But their efforts bring them into conflict and threaten to create disaster on another scale.

With considerable sensitivity and complexity, Anders explores the ethical conundrums and philosophical issues faced by the proponents of science and of magic as they must decide how or if they should act. In fact, they are the same conundrums and issues that we face today. 

This brings me to perhaps my favorite quote from the book which comes from Ernesto, a member of the witches' faction:
We would not "break" nature if we spent a million years trying. This planet is a speck, and we are specks on a speck. But our little habitat is fragile, and we cannot live without it. 
In other words, we won't destroy the planet but we may destroy our habitat and make the planet unlivable for our species. 

And that reminds me to my favorite George Carlin quote:
The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!
...The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.
Charlie Jane Anders has written a wise sci fi fantasy for our times. The message that I take from it is that we had better find a way for science and Nature to work together if we don't want our planet to shake us off like a bad case of fleas. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

4 comments:

  1. Quite a powerful quote the latter one. I agree.

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  2. Pleased that you read it. Thrilled that you liked it. Patricia and Laurence were quite a pair, weren't they?

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