In her novel All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders defies conventions and overthrows dichotomies with a joyous aplomb. A story that is both science fiction and fantasy, about a boy who dreams of rockets and time machines and a girl who can talk to the birds and the trees, about the war between those who value technology over nature and those who value nature over technology, about those who think man can be outside of, control and manipulate the natural world and those who think man is a part of and must live within and be guided by it.
As children, Patricia and Laurence are both outcasts - misunderstood, bullied, gaslighted, rejected by parents, schoolmates and the educational system itself. They form a fragile alliance, which even as it grows is being undermined by Theodolphus Rose, an assassin turned guidance counselor who has had a mystical vision that they will grow up to start an apocalyptic war between science and magic. Together they create a true AI, using Laurence's code and Patricia's non-linear conversations with the nascent intelligence - an AI that Laurence names Peregrine and sets free to evolve. Eventually their friendship, frayed by Rose's manipulations and lies, shatters when Patricia allows Laurence to see her doing magic.
Seven years later, Laurence is working with a semi-underground group of scientific geniuses trying to find a way to save at least part of the human race from the coming global upheaval being triggered by climate change. Their plan is to find a way to move large numbers of people to another planet, leaving the earth behind to face its destruction. Meanwhile, Patricia has been taken into the fellowship of witches, and trained in the two branches of magic, Healing and Trickery. The witches are devoting their energies to an attempt to balance the energies of the planet, serving nature through small acts of healing or prevention, developing their own solution, one that will preserve the earth at the cost of humanity.
When Laurence and Patricia meet each other once more, the path is set for a dramatic and violent confrontation, but beyond that, a chance for reconciliation of man and nature, science and magic, and for a future where empathy and understanding can open the door to the survival of all.
I've never been fond of Cartesian divides, and the skill with which Anders exposes the humanity vs. nature, intuition vs logic axes as barren and ultimately destructive was quite gratifying. I also appreciated the focus on ethical decisions - everyone in the novel is trying to do the ethical thing, based on their partial understanding - and the ease with which ethical reasoning can be subverted to questionable ends when it is not tempered with empathy and compassion.
But this is much more than a novel of ideas. The characters are appealing despite their flaws, the writing is crisp, and the style engaging. The story flows smoothly, and it isn't until you get to the end that you realise just how much there is to think about. Well worth the critical praise it has received.