Science vs Magic in a Dystopian World

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

all the birdsThe minute I read the tag-line on the press release for this book, I knew I had to read it:

‘A witch, a scientist and the end of the world’.

This novel tries to do something that is not often seen in genre fiction – melding fantasy and urban SF in a dystopian setting. It’s also a romance and coming of age story with a thrilling edge to it. We start by meeting the two protagonists, Patricia and Laurence as children.

Patricia is six when she discovers she can talk to birds when she helps an injured sparrow and saves it from a cat. It doesn’t happen again until she’s a teenager, enraged by her sister, she escapes into the forest and talks to the Tree where the Parliament of Birds meet. She’s confused by her magical skill, which doesn’t seem useful compared to Laurence’s technical abilities:

‘My friend Laurence can build supercomputers and time-machines and ray guns. He can make cool things happen any time he wants. I can’t make anything cool happen.’ […]

‘Your friend would control nature,’ said the Tree, rustling through each syllable one by one. ‘A witch must serve nature.’

Yes, Patricia will become a witch. Meanwhile, Laurence is a geek who would spend all his hours in front of a screen or tinkering with things.

One day, Laurence found some schematics on the internet, which he printed out and reread a hundred times before he started figuring out what they meant. And once he combined them with a solar-battery design that he found buried in an old message-board post, he started to have something. He stole his dad’s old waterproof wristwatch and combined it with some parts he scavenged from a bunch of microwave ovens and cell phones. And a few odds and ends from the electronics store. At the end of all this, he had a working time machine that fit on his wrist.

The time machine only jumps forwards two seconds in time, but it helps Laurence against the bullies at school – he can dodge their punches. Both misfits at school, it is natural for Patricia and Laurence to gravitate towards each other, as friends at first, as Patricia says:

“There’s a difference between your type of outcast and mine. If you’re a science geek, people give you wedgies and don’t invite you to their parties. But if you’re a witch, everyone just assumes you’re an evil psycho.”

Laurence recruits Patricia to talk to his supercomputer CH@NG3M3 which lives all over the networks. He thinks if it talks to different people, it may become sentient. Even when Patricia and Laurence have a misunderstanding and split up, unbeknownst to Laurence, she keeps talking to the AI and this will have an important effect on what happens later.

Patricia becomes a graduate of the secret magical school of Eltisley Maze – which is definitely not Hogwarts. There she learns to harness her magical powers, but also about how she must only use them for good, never for aggrandizement, to benefit herself.  This is something that all the young magicians struggle with, and once they’re back in the normal world, it will lead them to a very different kind of life.

Laurence will join an elite band of scientists and engineers – finding and making the two-second time machine was an audition piece. They’re looking at creating something big that will benefit all mankind, saving the world – but will it turn out to be a doomsday machine?

When Laurence and Patricia meet again as young adults, it is fated that the star-crossed lovers will find it near impossible to be together, such are the constraints of their lives. To continue the allusion to Romeo and Juliet further, Science and Magic are like the Capulets and Montagues, with CH@NG3M3 as Friar Laurence (I loved CH@NG3M3). We just hope that love will out.

The author has tried throughout to get the balance between science and magic right. Both sides have their internal rivalries and shades of goodness. There are no real villains on either side, just misunderstandings and misplaced beliefs. Some people would describe magic as science for which we don’t have the answers yet and this sentiment seems to provide a nice subtext to the novel.

I enjoyed the steampunky engineered feel of Laurence’s time machine, it doesn’t rely on code. I’m a firm believer that engineers are scientific enablers and I liked that Laurence was more than just a programmer and that the community of scientists had a similar range. I had one problem with the magical side of this novel. The concept of only using magic without ‘aggrandizement’ among the magicians was sound, but the word itself felt heavy-handed once it had been used in the text a few times – and it was used quite a lot. Anders’s vision of a near future California is not the drought-ridden one of Gold Fame Citrus, it’s still green in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Not so different to the world we know, yet more futuristic.

There was so much more to this novel, but to explain any further would risk too many spoilers. It is a story that evolves with its main characters, becoming quite grown-up as they too come of age. It is an emotionally and ethically complex science fantasy and it was impossible to take sides which is an achievement in itself. It does suffer slightly, as many debuts do, from an overload of ideas, but I loved the wonderful imagination of it and look forward to see what Charlie Jane Anders does next. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!

Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky (Titan Books, Jan 2016) Paperback original, 432 pages.

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