Magic and science go to war in ‘All the Birds in the Sky’

(jacket design by Will Staehle/Unusual Co.)
(jacket design by Will Staehle/Unusual Co.)

All the Birds in the Sky is the sophomore effort by io9 editor-in-chief Charlie Jane Anders. Her 2005 debut, Choir Boy, is a young-adult novel that won the Lambda Literary Award for its exploration of transgender/genderqueer issues. All the Birds in the Sky is geared toward adults (although the first act would make a good YA novella), blending fantasy and science fiction in a cautionary tale about environmental degradation.

Two protagonists guide us through the novel. We meet Patricia when she is six years old and she finds and injured sparrow. More surprisingly, she learns she can speak to that sparrow because she is a witch. But following a brief and wondrous visit to the Parliament of Birds, Patricia’s magical abilities leave her—for a time.

Author's sketch (
Author’s sketch (

Her classmate, Laurence, is a science prodigy who as a child builds a time machine that allows him to move two seconds into the future. He runs away from home—briefly—to attend a meeting of the Single-Stage Orbital Rocket Gang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Patricia and Laurence are misfits who befriend one another out of necessity. But although they grow close, their respective orientations in magic and science creates distance between them. Even worse, their school guidance counselor Theodolphus Rose is also a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins who had a vision of a future “war between magic and science that will leave the world in ashes.” To prevent this, Theodolphus sets the two children against one another.

The novel takes the two protagonists through different stages of their lives as the two come together and fall apart more than once. Patricia graduates from the Hogwarts-like Etisely Maze and then uses her magic in secret to address the problems of a rapidly-declining world. Laurence becomes a Silicon Valley wunderkind working on the Ten Percent Project—a worst case scenario in the event that humanity destroys itself.

As the story progresses, the world grows ever closer to environmental collapse. Both Patricia and Laurence are seeking to avert this, although the magical and scientific solutions regularly come into conflict. As the novel reaches its climax, their friends are engaged in all-out war with each in an already-devastated environment. Securing peace between the two sides seems to be the only way to avoid the end of the world.

The conflict between magic and science reminded me of InterWorld (2007) by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves, which drew upon the Law and Chaos struggle in the works of Michael Moorcock, which itself originated in Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) by Poul Anderson. It is, clearly, not a new idea, but a timeless one that works well, particularly with the added environmental element, which appears to be Anders’ unique contribution to the subgenre.

Author Charlie Jane Anders (photo by Tristan Crane)
Author Charlie Jane Anders (photo by Tristan Crane)

All the Birds in the Sky features compelling characters working through complex problems, not to mention their own complicated emotions. Anders sometimes struggles to find the right tone, as the novel’s silliest parts feel out of synch with the apocalyptic conclusion. But on the whole, this is a thought-provoking marriage of fantasy and science fiction that sheds light on the real-world problem of environmental degradation.

About Matt Hlinak

Matt Hlinak
Matt Hlinak is an administrator at Dominican University, just outside of Chicago. He teaches courses in English and legal studies. His short stories have appeared in 'Sudden Flash Youth' (Persea Books 2011) and several literary magazines. 'DoG' (2012) is his debut novel.

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