Charlie Jane Anders’ novel All the Birds in the Sky, is in many ways a love story, but it’s not a particularly sunny one. The book, out this week, tracks two childhood friends as they discover their special powers—Patricia is a witch, Lawrence a (barely) time-traveling mad genius—and grow apart, only to find each other years later, after they’ve followed their respective paths. The sci-fi/fantasy world that the two live in is essentially the Darkest Timeline version of our own: cataclysmic climate change has led to famine, disease, and more than one nation on the brink of war.
“With my disaster scenario, I wanted it to be super-clear that it’s not that the world is necessarily coming to an end,” Anders says over the phone from her home in San Francisco, where the majority of the book is set. “It’s that there’s enough reason that some people believe that the world is coming to an end. That was a distinction I really wanted to maintain.”
Of course, All the Birds isn’t all near-future apocalypse; the novel also hits upon interstellar colonization, wormholes, and artificial intelligence. The ideas are as complex as the prose is accessible, so naturally we wanted to know what stories could help inspire such an epic. Not surprisingly, her list of literary influences is incredibly varied, from medieval philosophy to tips on how to survive a mass extinction. Not that we’ll be needing them. Hopefully.
William Langland, Piers Plowman
“Piers Plowman is this trippy, unusual medieval epic about this guy who decides to find out what it means to be ‘good,’ and goes around having weird philosophical conversations with allegorical characters. At one point he’s hanging out with the personifications of Doing Good, Doing Well, and Doing Best, and they’re all debating the differences between them. It has this great feeling of suspense—he’s so desperate to find his answer, and his time is running out.”
Doris Lessing, Martha Quest (and the rest of her Children of Violence series)
“The series starts out in the 1950’s in Africa with a young woman becoming a communist, and getting involved with radical politics. It’s very close to Doris Lessing’s own experience. Eventually the main character moves to England, the way Lessing did, and it sort of follows Lessing’s own life—until you get to the late ’60s when the final book was written, and suddenly the book jumps ahead to the future and there’s a nuclear war, and mutants with psychic powers, and all this crazy stuff is happening. It feels like an extension of the story that we read up until that point; we’re still in that same realistic world, it’s just that now crazy science-fiction stuff is happening. I love the way that she handles her peer group growing up and getting older, and how honest it all is. Doris Lessing was an incredibly honest, keen observer of her own thoughts, but also human nature.”
Roald Dahl, Tales of the Unexpected
“Roald Dahl wrote these super-brutal, bitter stories about childhood that also are silly and weird and almost goofy. It’s incredibly harsh, but it’s also sweet in a way; terrible things happen, but then people do come through. I wasn’t consciously thinking about them when I wrote the book, but when people bring up Roald Dahl, I’m like, “yeah, of course—when I was a kid I read everything he wrote.’
Dr. Dave Goldberg, author of The Universe in the Rearview Mirror
“If you get too cavalier and silly and off-the-wall with the science in the book, it doesn’t stand out from the magic enough; there’s not enough contrast—even though it’s not regular science. I was very keyed on the idea that Lawrence had to be a mad scientist. I bugged Dr. Dave constantly about the nature of other universes, and the nature of gravity, and whether my weird idea that gravity could be a stronger force in other universes than it is in this one, and you could access that somehow, whether there was anything to that at all.”
Will McIntosh, Soft Apocalypse
There’s a whole sub-genre of apocalypse books, but Will McIntosh wrote a book that’s about things just slowly falling apart. How would you actually tell the difference between, ‘oh my gosh, the world is falling apart’ versus ‘America is no longer able to just have unlimited resources, and some of our infrastructure has broken down?’”
Annalee Newitz, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass ExtinctionT
“Annalee, who is my partner who co-founded io9 with me, wrote this amazing book about what the human race could actually do to survive, based on our knowledge of previous mass extinction. It’s an incredibly helpful book about this horrible scenario that is quite possibly in our future—maybe probably in our future.”