Friday, March 25, 2016

Chicago Nerds- All the Birds in the Sky

For the March Chicago Nerd Social Club book discussion, we read "All the Birds in the Sky", the 2016 debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders, known to many of us as the editor at influential SF/F/geeky news/media site io9.

"All the Birds" self-consciously straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy. It follows Laurence and Patricia, childhood friends who wind up on opposite sides of a war between magic-users and super-scientists.

This was one of those (exceedingly rare) Chicago Nerds selections that we almost-unanimously liked, and we had a good discussion teasing out some of our favorite parts. Anders was also kind enough to join us via videochat to talk about the book and answer some questions. Possible spoilers below!

The story follows our two protagonists as young children, with a fairly extensive middle-school period, before jumping ahead to a period in their twenties when the action picks up significantly. Many of us felt that the YAish sections worked best of the whole book, being more tightly plotted, and having a kind of brutal honesty that worked really well for their age.

One of the questions we debated was whether the magic or technology side was better developed, with most of us feeling that the magic, perhaps ironically, felt more realistic and fleshed-out. However, aspects of Laurence's elite tech-group felt really spot-on, particularly the "maker/hacker" culture and the "do we risk blowing up the Earth to save it" board meeting from hell. And we enjoyed how Anders embraced an Elon Musk character as a savior-or-maybe-supervillain.

The conflict between the magicians and the scientists, essentially "save this world even if we have to radically change humanity to do it" versus "get off this rock before it's too late", reminded me obliquely of the ideological differences between Stephenson's "Seveneves" and Robinson's "Aurora" (both 2015). Seeing that basic idea crop up again here makes me think that Anders is picking up and commenting on the very real question of how we as humans should respond to major ecological shifts. Make no mistake, while the heart of this book is two people's relationship, and the elevator pitch is "witches vs. mad geniuses", disastrous climate change and environmental collapse are the real background story here.

A bikini: totally what you
would wear on an ice-
planet, right? #sfffacepalm
We really dug the description of "The Unravelling", the magic-users' possible hail-mary to save the planet. I was reminded a bit of Poul Anderson's "The Winter of the World" (1975), in which he sets up this vaguely utopian society of "noble savages" who can't stand to be around each other in large numbers. I don't necessarily recommend that, by the way, although I would strongly recommend its polar opposite, Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar" (1968), which concerns trying to find a way for people to peacefully coexist in close proximity.

(By the way, any Mass Effect nerds here? The Peregrine/Tree ending in "All the Birds in the Sky" totally put me in mind of the "Synthesis" ending in ME3. DISCUSS.)

The CNSC book club has become rather sceptical of the "magic school" trope, and were extremely pleased with how it's handled here. Patricia's experiences are sketched out enough for it to make sense, and it's intriguing, but it's not a derivative, self-indulgent slog. We contrasted this with Grossman's (IMHO, execrable) "The Magicians" (2009), among others. We also made comparisons to Morgenstern's "The Night Circus" (2011) and Wecker's "The Golem & The Jinni" (2013)--both for the "fantasy meet cute" and the "lovers on opposite sides" tropes. With reference to all three of those works, we also talked about agency and the lack of it at various points in the protagonists' stories.

Seriously don't know how
this post got so bikini-heavy.
Weird. Last one, I promise.
The magic mechanics generally worked very well, and we liked the "actions with consequences" approach. Discussed a fantasy variant of Chekhov's gun-style foreshadowing, call it "Chekhov's Spell Condition". We somehow failed to note the resonances with "The Little Mermaid", with Laurence giving up his voice for love.

One of the things we like most about the novel is its sense of humor, with Theodolphus Rose, tragicomic assassin, definitely taking the cake. That ice-cream scene! Mixed feelings about the heavy use of semi-obscure/nerdy references (first NYT best-seller to reference MC Frontalot? someone confirm plz), with some of us both enjoying them and feeling they added a level of verisimilitude (e.g. a roomful of techies that don't make Dr. Who references at some point breaks suspension of disbelief), while others in the group felt the references kind of "preemptively date" the book, besides being non-starters for anyone not in the know.

Possible Caddy precursor?
We liked Peregrine & the Caddies, and wouldn't have minded hearing more about the AI's development. If there is an imbalance in the magic/tech divide here, it's definitely in the underdevelopment of Laurence's scientist side--while the magic system Patricia is part of feels pretty well-developed, as mentioned above, the scientific inventions here are pretty weakly sketched out, although we noted that we need to give the science some free passes due to "cartoony mad science" as opposed to realistically "hard".

We were also a little bemused by "is a tree red?" I can dig on the question just being a kind of koan--prompting a consciousness change due it not having a satisfactory answer, but a lot of us, understandably, were hoping for that question to be explored or explained a bit more, especially since it bookends the novel.

We didn't actually discuss this, though boy howdy was I primed to: there's a pretty interesting and potentially very rich ethical argument taking place in "All the Birds in the Sky". Meta-ethical, even: Laurence's conception of right and wrong being principled in a way that he explicitly connects to the Kantian categorical imperative (which is interesting given that his mad-scientist cohort seems to be operating along more utilitarian lines), while Patricia briefly sketches out a "non-principled", situated, other-focused ethic that I (surprising no one) think sounds rather like Levinas.

After discussing the novel for a bit by ourselves, we were delighted to have Anders join us by the wonders of the internet--she video-conferenced in from an event she was attending at Industrial Light & Magic to talk to us for a bit (which, like I fool, I forgot to ask Paul to screenshot). I was most intrigued by what she revealed about earlier drafts of the novel, because we can still see traces of those versions. She confirmed our suspicion that Douglas Adams was a major influence, and indicated that an early draft was extremely Hitch-Hiker-y, with a very intrusive/comedic narrator. The trick to the balancing the humor, she said, was both figuring out how to juggle "smart-ass" with "serious" tones, and particularly in controlling the POV and situations so that we were laughing with the characters, not at them. She suggested that a Theodolphus spin-off is NOT IMPOSSIBLE, which we are pretty excited about.

Anders also (thank goodness!) confirmed that there were some Chaucerian elements in the novel. I had been going mildly crazy trying to line up "All the Birds in the Sky" with Chaucer's "Parlement of Fowles" (1383?), a poem about birds, love, free will, Nature. Apparently, there were also early drafts that were much more rife with Chaucer references. Probably as blunt cash-grab pandering to the massive medievalist demographic, am I right? Making me wonder why they were ever cut! I'll keep my Chaucer ponderings to a minimum on the off-chance you're one of the tiny minorities outside that demographic. At the very least, the book was apparently met with approval by wonderful internet presence Chaucer Doth Tweet, which you should really check out.

Anders also elaborated a bit on the idea of "Aggrandizement", which is sort of an humility principle the magic-users adhere to, trying to avoid thinking too much of themselves or their powers. I found that a really rich concept, one that has a positive as well as a negative side--the latter being that it's used to control those lower down in the hierarchy. "All the Birds in the Sky" also felt like it's engaging with impostor syndrome in a lot of ways, with both Patricia & Laurence always worried that they're "not really" good/talented/etc. enough, and Aggrandizement as a theory seems to reinforce that syndrome, so it was interesting to discuss it for a bit. It's important to note, though, that Aggrandizement is also part of why the magic system in "All the Birds" is so satisfying, because that magic never becomes consequence-free wish-fulfilment.

A great read, a great discussion! By the way, you should check out Charlie Jane Ander's many articles, and also come see her in Chicago May 3rd at Martyrs--she'll be appearing with Audrey Niffenegger and Luis Alberto Urrea as part of the Writers With Drinks series.

Chicago Nerds next book is N.K. Jemisin's new novel "The Fifth Season", April 11th at Filter Cafe.

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