294: The Best Part of the Planet (Charlie Jane Anders)

                “As long as humanity survives, the best part of planet Earth will have endured.”
                -Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds in the Sky, page 237

                “She thought of colony collapse disorder, the image of the bee staggering in the air, flying away from the hive as if forgetting where it lived…”
                -Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds in the Sky, page 278

                For a long time, I thought All The Birds in the Sky was a book about two very different ways of looking at the world. Major spoilers ahead.
                Someone told me All the Birds was about “a young witch who’s best friends with a mad scientist,” and I was off and running. The book leans into crisis, with human civilizations struggling toward collapse. The grown up mad scientist is part of a genius tech team that thinks it has the answer: a wormhole to another inhabitable planet. Creating the wormhole has a small chance of destroying Earth. It’s still (they think) worth it: “as long as humanity survives, the best part of the planet Earth will have endured.”
                The witches see things differently. The planet (they say) is not us, it’s a whole world, algae and crickets and archer fish and everything. Risking the world with this wormhole is insane. So the witches have their own plan: a giant spell that will create a kind of “colony collapse disorder” in humans. We’ll stop recognizing each other as the same species, as individuals with whom we could interact; we’ll forget ourselves and what we make, and as we all run from each other, our species will end. The world—with all its many species—will heal from our pollution.
                It’s a story about very different ways of looking at the world, I suggested to some students. A story about what we mean when we say here, about what, back before solutions are envisioned, we hold as most important. And one student said: “but they’re doing the same thing.” I asked what they mean. Mostly, they answered with a shrug. It was the same thing. Couldn’t I see it was the same thing?
                That conversation was months ago. Since then I’ve been thinking about it, not constantly but every now and then—about as often, say, as a blowing leaf cartwheels past me on the street. Today I wondered if it’s exactly that, the slowness of thinking and wondering, that my student saw missing in both plans. Both actions were solutions. They were dramatic and complete, irreversible, the kind of decision that’s meant to stand forever. Neither left a choice for tomorrow. Maybe most choices are really more like the leaves, cartwheeling along as so many of us watch and wonder and try to help.

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