First published in 2016, Charlie Jane Anders’ debut novel All the Birds in the Sky presents a perfect marriage of science fiction and fantasy. The book follows two main characters, Patricia and Laurence (not Larry). Both characters embody one of the two genres. Patricia encapsulates fantasy, discovering her magical abilities at a young age through a conversation with a bird. Laurence, a scientific prodigy, represents science fiction, inventing a time machine that allows the user to jump forward in time two seconds.
The depiction of fantasy and science fiction makes for a captivating read. But another fascinating aspect of the novel is the presentation of gender. As a trans woman, Charlie Jane Anders brings a unique perspective to how gender is depicted, providing equal attention and honest descriptions. She then uses this presentation of gender to combat our traditional views of binaries, encouraging us to look beyond the usual presentation.
The author’s perspective comes through early on in the novel. The book begins with Patricia and Laurence as middle school outcasts, just learning about their special skills and still navigating their complicated lives. Anders transitioned from male to female, and subtle influences can be found throughout this section of the book. Patricia and her sister, Roberta, both have names derived from traditional masculine names – Patrick and Robert. Their parents originally picked only “boy” names, but switched them to the feminine version.
Laurence’s storyline alludes to male-to-female transitioning as well. On page 22, Anders writes about how Laurence’s parents “bought him clothes one and a half sizes too big, because they kept thinking he would hit a growth spurt any day”. Laurence doesn’t fit right in his own clothing, which can be further interpreted as a discomfort in a masculine form. In later chapters, Laurence’s parents ship him off to a military school, reeking of patriarchal masculinity. Chapter 15 begins with Laurence huddling naked in a literal closet after his peers stripped him and shoved him inside. He only escapes after Patricia frees him from the closet. These moments reflect the author’s own transitioning – the discomfort of masculinity, the boxing-in by the patriarchy, and the freedom granted through a feminine figure.
Anders uses the idea of transitioning in other contexts as well, going beyond merely gender. When the primary characters reach adulthood, Anders further explores two binaries with blurred lines: the schools of magic, and fantasy and science fiction. Magic in All the Birds of the Sky belongs in one of two categories: Healing and Trickster. Witches can study both of these types of magic on two different campuses. Eltisley Hall teaches Healing magic in a strict, rigorous manner, while The Maze teaches Trickster magic in a chaotic format.
Students can spend time on either campus, passing between the two in order to expand their knowledge and skills. A student could hypothetically focus all their studies on one type of magic, but their abilities strengthen through fluidity, encouraging an openness of the magical binary. This can be interpreted as a reflection of the gender spectrum: fluidity can strengthen a person and their identity, and gender fluidity should be encouraged and explored.
Anders blends the lines between science fiction and fantasy as well. At one point, an experiment gone wrong results in a woman’s disappearance, and the only solution lies in a magical pact. Certain types of magic that use these pacts parallel the scientific law of equivalent exchange. Thus, Anders makes another binary system fluctuate.
Through the bending of binaries and her own experience, Anders asserts gender fluidity as a strength to be explored. Other binary systems become stronger when treated in a fluid, non-rigid manner. Anders encourages the audience to avoid boxing things in and open up binaries to enhance our lives.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.
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