This is a deliciously weird book, and if people have love-it or hate-it reactions to it I could not be less surprised. There are often very pretentious and meta conversations among geeks regarding the differences that delineate (with very fluid, hazy borders) fantasy and science fiction. Sometimes, this happens because of “bad” sci-fi, that doesn’t actually explain its science very well, and gaps in the world building may as well be explained by magic. All the Birds in the Sky deliberately takes this idea and runs with it, by pitting science and magic against each other. It’s not just that we’ve still been unable to explain certain phenomena through science; it’s that magic both buttresses and occasionally antagonizes scientific achievement through the will of the witches and wizards who wield it.
I really responded to every element of this book: I enjoyed Patricia and Laurence, outcasts both, who are each others’ only support system and still manage to find themselves on opposite sides of nature. I was tickled by how the book quixotically refused to stay in genre. The contemporary, rather than future, setting weirdly lent an air of credibility to utterly implausible events. Have we built a two-second time machine? Of course not! But then again, maybe, and perhaps the people who built it just decided to keep it to themselves and just seek out other people who were good enough to build it. Maybe they are the geniuses above all other genius, and we only haven’t heard of them yet because they don’t want us to know.
Likewise, maybe there are witches, out there doing small, random acts of good in the world. Anything big and obvious enough to be undeniably pegged as magic is “AGGRANDIZEMENT!” on the part of the magic user and thus is strictly forboden. So magic remains discreet, mostly, until it’s required to step in in a big way, and by that time, it’s too late for all of us anyway.
All the Birds in the Sky is one of those books that I just don’t want to say too much about, because not knowing much myself and letting it unroll in front of me was an eye-opening experience in imaginative writing that I rarely experience and therefore treasure. Know that it’s weird (as I said) and genre-bending (as I said) and if that appeals to you in some vague, abstract way, I definitely recommend it.