charlie jane anders

Charlie Jane Anders’ ‘All The Birds In The Sky’ Is The Harry Potter For Adults You’ve Been Waiting For

all the birds in the sky

And at the last, a war between magic and science that would leave the world in ashes. At the center of all this were a man and a woman, who were still children now.
― Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky

“I am unflappable,” Laurence told the bus driver. Who shrugged, as if he’d thought so too, once upon a time, until someone had flapped him.
― Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky

You know this story, you’ve heard it before a thousand times. In Charlie Jane Anders’ first novel, All the Birds in the Sky, boy meets girl. Both are outcasts, loners looking for companionship. A connection is formed. But one is a witch, and one is a mad scientist who will someday build a doomsday machine… Wait, what?!?

This is a story you’ve heard before, a thousand times, running headlong into another story you’ve heard before, a thousand times, and devouring it whole. It is coming-of-age, it is falling-into-and-out-of-love, it is science fiction and fantasy and end of the world dystopia. It is all of this smooshed into a delicious sandwich of clever one-liners that never become old, beautifully written moments that dance on that borderline of cheesiness, tropes re-built from the top down. Everything you know about science fiction and fantasy is there, from the very first lines. It is all inside out, it is upside down, and it is endlessly creative.

Patricia Delfine talked to a bird and a tree when she was a small child. Laurence Armstead built a watch allowing him to time travel two seconds into the future. They are both oddities in their school and in the world, one finding solace in nature, and the other with keyboards and screens. They have a brief and fierce adolescent friendship, drawn together by their peculiar talents before they are torn apart by those same gifts.

Fast forward, and Delfine and Armstead run into each other as adults in a near-future San Francisco. The world isn’t a pretty place, and Delfine and Armstead aren’t the prettiest people. He has become a megalomaniac engineer, with millions of dollars behind him, and she has become an aggrandizing witch, using her powers to play with people as she sees fit. Can they come together to save a world that is falling apart?

I can’t speak highly enough of Charlie Jane Anders. If you haven’t read her Hugo-award winning novelette “Six Months, Three Days,” I recommend taking a break from social media to read it. Anders was a co-editor of the science fiction blog i09, and much can be read into All the Birds in the Sky regarding not only society’s struggle between technology and the environment, but also the genre struggle between science fiction and fantasy. It can be a challenge to make a novel this layered and eager also fun and funny to read, but Anders executes this brilliantly. She makes it look easy.

I’ve heard Anders speak on panels twice, and each time she was insightful. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

All the Birds in the Sky on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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Oh, A Bay Area Book-Festin’ I Did Go

This last weekend I was totally excited to fly out of a record-breaking desert heatwave in Arizona, and attend the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, California. Big names and small presses came together, shutting down the streets of Downtown Berkeley and gathering around the world’s largest free library. It was a book lover’s dream.

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Lacuna, the world’s largest free library/sculpture.

I went into the festival getting a bit of a cold, which I assume the dramatic climate change didn’t help, and was pretty bummed to feel like I was dying through such an incredible experience. I toughed it out though, and attended every panel I planned on, except one, crashing early in the first evening with a nasty cough.

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Saul Williams and the Black Spirituals

The festival started off with a performance by poet, musician, and slam-master Saul Williams featuring local spoken-word artist Chinaka Hodge avant-garde jazz musicians Black Spirituals. As this had been sold out for months, I wasn’t sure I was going to get in, but I scored a ticket at the last minute.

I caught the end of Hodge’s performance, which was breathtaking and made me regret walking in late. Williams jammed with the Black Spirituals, free-associating poetry out of his new collection as they jammed on the drums and a bass plugged into several synthesizers. One of the best, and worst, things about Saul Williams is his multi-faceted performance ability. You don’t know which Saul you will get when you show up to see him. As someone who loves the fast-flowing percussive alliteration of spoken word, this more chilled out performance wasn’t my favorite.

That’s okay though, I still love Saul, and found a new name to look out for in Chinaka Hodge. I picked up two books as I walked out of the performance: Saul Williams’ new collection, US(a.) and Chinaka Hodge’s Dated Emcees.

 

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Subversive Speculative Fiction with Charlie Jane Anders, Joanna Sinisalo, Carter Scholz, and Jewelle Gomez. Ayize Jama-Everett came in a bit late, so isn’t pictured here.

For the actual festival, I went real big and packed my lineup. One of the best panels I heard was the first I attended, Subversive Speculative Fiction, hosted by the always brilliant Charlie Jane Anders.

Although I hadn’t heard of many of the authors speaking, I had jotted down each of their books by the end of the talk and I’m looking forward to reading their work. Most notably Johanna Sinisalo and Ayize Jama-Everett were both hilarious while questioning the status quo of science fiction in simple but profound ways.

 

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Jane Ciabattaria hosting a panel with Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem.

Another of the greatest panels I saw featured Jonathan Lethem and Dana Spiotta nerding out about society, technology, and writing like two old friends staying up way too late and analyzing the world in all the most interesting ways. This is the sort of stuff I love to hear, the strange ways smart people think. From Spiotta researching the sound and touch of 1970’s telephone technology, to Lethem’s thoughts on the way the simultaneous experience has devolved through technology like Netflix, this was all the stuff I love to think about. Lethem has been one of my favorite authors for quite a while now, and although I haven’t checked out Spiotta’s work, I am definitely going to do so in the future.

There was quite a bit more. Most notably, a panel with Adam Johnson, and another with the editors of the Voice of Witness books, which amplify the voices of those subject to human rights abuses around the world. Powerful stuff.

If you didn’t make it to Berkeley for this year’s Bay Area Book Festival, start planning now to make it out next year (it will be June 3rd and 4th, 2017).

Bay Area Book Festival

Recap of Hieroglyph Q&A with Neal Stephenson and friends

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Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future, released this week, is an anthology which encouraged authors “to contribute works of ‘techno-optimism’ that challenge us to dream and do Big Stuff.”

The entire idea came about when Neal Stephenson gave a talk at the Future Tense conference in early 2011, where he “lamented the decline of the manned space program, then pivoted to energy, indicating the real issue isn’t about rockets. It’s our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff.”

Michael Crow, Arizona State University’s president, heard this lament and suggested to Stephenson that perhaps the problem began with Stephenson himself, and other sci-fi writers like him who weren’t thinking big enough in their ideas. Thus, Ed Finn and his Center for Science and Imagination at ASU stepped in, connecting some serious scientists with those great masters of imagination, science fiction authors.

The culmination of these connections are boggling, vivid, and seriously delightful: a structurally sound twenty-kilometer-high steel tower (that would be really high, for those lacking perspective); cities that function like ecosystems, either through technology built to act as biology or through biological infrastructures; a world where machines have been entirely replaced with living matter; or a psychedelic revolution where we’re tripping out on quantum mechanics rather than any sort of drug.

I had the opportunity to attend a Hieroglyph release event with many of the authors, most notably Neal Stephenson, and both of the editors, at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on September 10th. No better place to talk about science and imagination than in the heart of so much innovation, Silicon Valley, right?

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Hjelmstad, Stephenson, and Finn.

After a quick introduction by Finn, who also edited the book, the first panel featured Stephenson and Keith Hjelmstad. Hjelmstad is a professor of structural engineering at ASU who worked with Stephenson on his idea for the book, the Tall Tower. The idea originally came from an old paper by Jeff Landis, Stephenson said, but he realized quite quickly he needed professional help. He was doing fine until he took wind into account. “99.9% of the problem is wind,” he said, with a very, very high building.

Hjelmstad said the “desire to make it real” drew him to the project–he even had a graduate student e-mail him about a design detail that morning. As the world of engineering is often bogged down with many codes and lawyers, which can kill creativity and innovation, this project offered something different.

Stephenson and Hjelmstad eventually came up with something that “looks like a tower, but flies like a kite,” as it was necessary to harness the wind for stability. This was sort of a new way of looking at a building–an organic idea.

There was a brief Q&A after the Tall Tower talk, in which Stephenson shrugged off a question about Google Glass and Snow Crash very modestly, saying the book’s concepts were around before he wrote about them. He said that he doesn’t think science fiction necessarily invents these ideas, but “creates hypothetical futures with the ideas used in a practical way.”

Someone asked about the Tall Tower’s shadow–“diffuse, gray, delightful.”

Most memorably, someone in the audience began animatedly offering up their own idea for some sort of force-field glove which would propel fireballs, just incredibly off-topic. I was sort of baffled, as we were talking about the Tall Tower, and expecting another question, but Stephenson just rolled with this new idea. He suggested some things to think about related to projecting fireballs, saying he knew some people who did amazing stuff with fire, and to a round of applause, concluded that “any engineering problem can be solved–you just have to figure out your objective and the legal ramifications.”

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Newitz, Anders, Rucker, and Cramer.

The second panel featured Hieroglyph‘s second editor, Kathyrn Cramer, and three contributors: Annalee Newitz of io9 fame; Rudy Rucker, a founder of cyberpunk; and the award-winning Charlie Jane Anders.

Newitz said at one point that the most audacious thing about Hieroglyph is that these stories focus on humanity surviving. I think this is a huge, interesting point, and I tend to agree. There is quite a bit of fatalistic, dystopian fare out there right now. Do we really think we’re that bad?

I hadn’t ever heard of Charlie Jane Anders, but her commentary made me definitely want to check out her work. Also, Rudy Rucker seemed wildly wise, like some sort of buddha in writer’s garb, and I’m excited to read his stuff as well.

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Optimistic cat is techno-optimistic.

The conversation is ongoing, as Project Hieroglyph itself is designed to be an interactive and open experience–don’t let the book’s pages, with all their permanence, fool you. You can contribute your ideas, and perhaps change the world, or just start changing the world’s story.

Hieroglyph at Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org