Saturday, June 17, 2017

Science, Magic, and Silliness: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

I picked up All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders after it won the Nebula Award for best novel and to do my diligence as a Hugo voter as it's a Hugo finalist.  I found it mostly entertaining with some interesting ideas and funny bits, but I don't understand the hype.  Maybe Anders is close friends with a lot of SFWA members (Science Fiction Writers of America - the group that votes on the Nebulas)?  Maybe her rightly praised work on the i09 website is doing some of the heavy lifting in the background?  Maybe I just don't get it?

I'll say more on the humor and the ideas in a bit, but first a bit on what didn't work for me.

Something about the novel makes it feel like a decent YA book veering in the direction of magical realism.  I don't say this just because we meet the characters in their childhood.  Even the sections where they're grown up feel more like a teenager's idea of what it's like to be an adult (or more precisely, an adult YA author's idea of a teenager's idea of what it's like to be an adult!).  Some of it was the writing style.  Every time we meet a major character, we are treated to middle-school-style lists of descriptions of their physical features.  The magical realist elements make for some humorous whimsy, like when birds randomly start talking to one of the main characters, but it also makes the book feel a little silly (not that I mind silly, but this particular brand of silliness doesn't work for me, maybe because it feels a bit too derivative of things like Harry Potter or Labyrinth). For the record, I have nothing against YA - it's just not my thing, mainly because it forces me to relive my own teenage awkwardness, and I have little of the nostalgia for those years that adults who love YA often seem to have.

As far as the plot, I don't want to give spoilers, but it doesn't really come together as well as it could have.  It felt like the novel spun a little out of control and puttered out at the end.  The last 100 pages were much harder to get through than the first 100.  Oddly I couldn't bring myself to care much about the end of the world.

One of the strong points of the book is the humor.  I can say I chuckled a lot, especially in the first half of the book.  But I get the sense that it's trying a little too hard to be clever and relevant in the kind of way that will feel dated in just a few years, especially with the rate at which pop culture is moving in our social media age.  It's all a little too precious sometimes.

The Philosophy Report: Epistemologies of Magic and Science

Aside from the humor, I did enjoy the big idea of the novel, which revolves around a conflict between two ways of knowing and being in the world: magic vs. science, intuition vs. rationality, going-with-the-flow vs. predict-and-control, fantasy vs. science fiction, etc.  The first half of this dichotomy is represented by the character Patricia, who becomes a witch, and the second half by Laurence, who becomes a mad scientist of sorts.

Epistemology, or theory of knowledge, is the part of philosophy that looks into questions of knowledge.  What's the difference between knowledge and making stuff up?  How do you get knowledge?  Do we have as much of it as we think we do?  Some philosophers, especially of a more postmodern or feminist bent, tend to talk about epistemologies in the plural to mean different ways of knowing.

All the Birds in the Sky is about the relationship between two differing epistemologies in this sense.  Patricia knows the world in a less explicit, less analytical fashion (represented by the fact that she can't make magic happen when she wants it to, at least not at first).  She has to wait for the world to appear to her (perhaps in a more Heideggerian fashion?).  She has to work with the world rather than making the world work for her.  Laurence, on the other hand, knows the world through explicit analysis (represented by the blueprints he finds on the internet, for instance, to make a small time machine).  He intervenes in the world through experimentation to control it, with varying rates of success.

I myself am drawn to both epistemologies.  I don't think much of magic or magical thinking (at least in real life), but I do think there's a value in patient listening and opening oneself up to experience.  There's a value in understanding the flow of things and not trying to swim upstream all the time.  This is one of the fundamental lessons I've learned from Buddhism, Daoism, and Stoicism.  On the other hand, I think that humans are rational beings, or we can be when we feel like it, anyway.  In fact, I agree with many Buddhists and Stoics that being irrational is a major cause of our suffering.  And of course the methods of modern science have brought us cool things like air travel, the internet, and longer life expectancies, not to mention amazing knowledge of the universe.

All of this also touches on the two sides of the coin of fandom.  Maybe this is another key part of the hype around this book - that it brings together fantasy and science fiction fans? Or that it expresses the duality of human nature, our need for magic and myth as well as science and rationality?  Maybe it shows that we need both aspects of our nature to thrive as human beings?  Or is this dichotomy itself deconstructed?  After all, the root of wonder is common to both fantastical and mythical thinking as well as scientific and philosophical thought.  Maybe these are, just as fantasy and science fiction are to fandom, merely two sides of the same human coin?

All of this reminded me of a book I read several years ago called The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass, a fun urban fantasy set in Albuquerque about an epic battle between the forces of Reason and Unreason.  (Side note: Snodgrass wrote many Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, including one of my favorites, "The Measure of a Man".)  The Edge of Reason is more combative than All the Birds in the Sky (think Richard Dawkins writing in the vein of Jim Butcher), but the two novels explore similar themes.  While I find the narrative of The Edge of Reason more compelling, All the Birds in the Sky does a better job exploring the ways in which the two sides might compliment each other.

To sum up: While I enjoyed thinking through these themes in All the Birds in the Sky, especially as a fan of both fantasy and science fiction, I wish it had been executed a little bit better both in style and plot but also in probing a little deeper into the main ideas.

Rating: 79/100

See also my Goodreads review.

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