When Patricia Delfine was 6 years old, she found a wounded bird. As a 6-year-old might, she started to take it home. The bird started talking to her and persuaded her instead to take it to the Parliament of Birds to be healed. There she was given a riddle: “Is a tree red?” That riddle would haunt her into her adult life and lead to her saving the world.
When Laurence Armstead was in elementary school, he built a wristwatch time machine. The time machine would only take him two seconds into the future, which may not sound very useful, but it was effective for dodging things that bullies threw at him.
“All the Birds in the Sky” is a funny, over-the-top fantasy about two misfits — one a witch, the other a nerdy genius — who become friends as children. Their families are dysfunctional to the point of caricature; Patricia gets sent to her room for weeks at a time for doing rituals in the forest and Laurence is sent to multiple outdoors camps to “cure” him of spending all his time building a supercomputer in his closet.
Their school is rife with bullying and exclusion, and Laurence and Patricia are prime targets. The school counselor is actually a graduate of the Nameless Assassin School and had a vision that these two children would eventually destroy the world. He’s taken on a personal mission to find a way to kill them indirectly (because direct killing of minors is against the rules of his order).
The counselor isn’t necessarily wrong. As adults, Patricia and Laurence find themselves players in a classic conflict between magic and science that could destroy the world.
Patricia eventually attends a school for witches (that is nothing like Hogwarts), but finds that even among the witches she has ideas and talents they don’t understand and that her mentors’ final solution for the deepening environmental crisis is one that takes humanity out of the picture.
Laurence, meanwhile, finds himself working for a billionaire entrepreneur who plans to move as many people as possible off the planet before the biosphere crashes. The catch? Opening a wormhole on the Earth’s surface carries a small but measurable risk of tearing apart the planet. In a scene reminiscent of the discussions about building the first atom bomb, they decide to risk it.
Each of the two groups decides the other is their biggest enemy. A pre-emptive strike by the witches leads to deadly retaliation as the scientists weaponize their wormhole technology. And, of course, only our two heroes, who actually know and love each other in spite of their differences, can resolve the problem. In an ending with a twist, they find that magic and science are just two sides of the same coin.
The book is set in the near future, when a leak from a cross-Arctic natural gas pipeline has supercharged global warming. Massive hurricanes have destroyed cities on the East Coast. Recurrent natural disasters have crashed the economy. Even when Patricia and Laurence come together and solve the riddle, it’s not certain the planet can really be saved.
The outsized plot might make you think this would be a sort of comic book in prose. But Anders’ fantasy is saved by its humor and its matter-of-fact approach to its characters. Laurence’s supercomputer, the first and only conscious Artificial Intelligence in the world, evolves into a line of personal devices called “Caddies” that theoretically could help anyone out of a problem situation.
However, the people who can afford Caddies are mostly interested in finding their perfect mate. “An estimated 1.7 billion people were at critical famine levels, but they didn’t have Caddies. The North Koreans were massing along the DMZ, but they didn’t own Caddies, either. Neither did the majority of the people trapped in the Arab Winter. Some of the people dying of dysentery and antibiotic-resistant bugs had Caddies, but not most of them.”
Laurence himself is a classic millennial tech guy, working too many hours for his company and always worried that his girlfriend, who builds robots with emotions, secretly has him on probation.
As for Patricia, for years she can only talk to birds in moments of extreme stress or when she’s eaten particularly spicy food. The birds themselves are not fonts of wisdom. When she’s trying to escape the school counselor and urgently asks one to explain to her how to be a bird, it says:
“Well ... You feel the wind hold you aloft, and you listen for the call of friends, and you scan the ground for morsels, and you flap your wings for all sorts of reasons, like to dry yourself and to lift off the ground and also to express a strong sentiment, and to try and dislodge some nits...” And once she manages the transformation, she finds herself unable to stop eating suet at bird feeders and almost forgets to become human again.
In a sense, the story is about two people becoming human again, after the typical (or in this case, hypertypical) assaults of childhood. Becoming human, Anders implies, is what will save the planet.
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