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Monday, May 2, 2016

All the Birds in the Sky and The Best/Worst Blurb of All Time


I hated it at first! Then I kind of liked it! Then I was hooked! Then I hated it!

That's the existential story of life for a fish and also my reaction to All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders. Please don't take my word for it, though. Read about it and if it sounds like something you'd like, maybe you will? I seem to be clearly in the minority here. L.A. Times calls it "brilliant." Michael Chabon said, "In All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders darts and soars, with dazzling aplomb, among the hypotheticals of science fiction, the counterfactuals of fantasy, and the bittersweet mundanities of contemporary American life, throwing lightning bolts of literary style that shimmer with enchantment or electrons."

I want you to really chew on that blurb for a minute.

So let's just get this out of the way: who is this Howie? What has he ever done with his life? Has he ever published a novel? Is he as handsome as his profile picture looks? Did he really drop his gloves in the toilet? Is reality the same for everyone or do we experience the same stimuli in such diverse ways that no one person could ever speak for another's reaction? Are we all actually characters in a novel, and if so, would anyone read it and is the author watching us in the bathroom?

I'm nobody. I'm not Michael Chabon. I don't think this website is a place where you should go to find out what books to read. It's actually just a place where I practice writing and try to work things out in my head and if you want to be a part of that, I'm very humbled and grateful but it is certainly not a prerequisite for my friendship.

Who is this Howie? A guy who doesn't immediately melt for pop-culture references. Just because I know who MC Frontalot is doesn't mean I get chills when I see him referenced on a written page. "Doctor Who is a thing!" many pages of this book say, "And I am acknowledging it!" That's not an actual line from the book, but this is: "Actually, Laurence is hardly ever home; this is the first I’ve seen him in weeks. Which can only mean one thing: Red Dwarf marathon."

That's it. No oblique reference to the characters of an old show and how it applies to the current situation. No social commentary. Just banking on that thrill each of us gets when we realize we have something obscure in common. 
This is a book that doesn't know what kind of book it is. It goes from 20-somethings-having-very-deep-conversations-over-organic-coffee to Douglas Adams-style absurdity.
“We’re doing serious research here,” said Tanaa. “Nothing is a toy. Well, except for Six-Fingered Steve.” She gestured at the tiny tap-dancing robot, who heard his name and made jazz hands with too many digits. Disturbing, as always.”
Ugh. I'm going to stop. I'm sure Anders is a nice person and people sure seem to love this book. If you like magic and science fiction and painfully hip people saying things that are painfully clever (not to mention modern human beings who casually say things like, "I haven't seen him in a fortnight") and romances that happen seemingly out of nowhere and giant robots and a wizarding school that isn't-your-kid-sister's-Harry-Potter-because-of-swears then go for it.

I think there's a good argument to be made for science fiction and magical realism. These stories can be allegories. In this case there are some big interesting ideas, but I have a hard time with the basic premise and its application to real life. On the one hand, Laurence is a scientist who joins a group of people who want to save humanity from the impending doom of climate change through a wormhole tunneler, which would create a bridge between Earth and another habitable planet. On the other hand, Patricia represents the witches, magical nature folk whose last resort to save the world is to make humans abhor each other and never reproduce again.

Which, OK, that's kind of interesting. Except magic isn't real. Right? Maybe what Anders is trying to say is that there shouldn't be a divide between people who love Sci-Fi and people who love Fantasy, so she wrote a book full of both. Fine. If you're me and you don't like either, though, maybe it's not the book for you.

If the parallel is to point out a so-called divide between optimistic scientists who think that technology can save humanity from an increasingly uninhabitable Earth and the hippy granola-heads who say the only solution is mass suicide, then frankly I find that argument annoying. By focusing on the extremes we're missing everything in between. I go to a lot of scientific conferences. And these conferences are filled with people who are (A) Very passionate about the environment and (B) Very into science. They use technology to track wildlife, and climate, and plant growth. They use lasers to find polar bear dens in a way that is infinitely less invasive than the old-fashioned way (dogs and digging). They work with engineers to fix streams, and build massive highway structures to provide safe passage for wildlife across the roads. I'm sorry, dreadlocked white guy, but if we're going to save the world, we're going to need to science the sh** out of it.
Pretty cool of me to say I was going to stop and then not stop. I really don't want to be mean. I don't want to review books. I don't like to call my posts reviews. I don't like to call them posts, either. I've stopped calling this a blog and started calling it a website and started calling my blog posts "articles," because I enjoy lying to myself. I see the light and optimism and hope for the world disappear from people's eyes when I tell them that I have a blog. And I see them smile tightly and look for someone else to talk to when I say, "I wrote a post about that, I'll send you a link."

Most of my "articles" start out with me talking about an idea from a book that I find compelling. Or an anecdote. Or a dirty limerick. Then I might briefly discuss the book and say it was good. I'm not really that hard to please. If you look at my Goodreads, I give out stars like they are Tootsie Roll brand Halloween mix and it's the end of the night. I like almost all books. But sometimes I don't and my editor (me) is really getting on me (again, me) to post because he (me) has a thing to get to (which is a lie), so I write anyway.

So I don't like writing negative blogs (or articles, or reviews, or detritus dumps, call them what you want). What I do like, though, is seeing that I've written enough words to justify posting. Which I will do right.... now
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