Is a tree red? Patricia Delfine, a six-year-old fledgling witch talking to the Parliament of Birds for the first time, struggles to answer. Please. I need more time, she pleads just before waking in her father’s arms. Is this a dream, a memory, or a figment of her imagination? She doesn’t know. Seven years later Patricia feels like she unknowingly failed a test, the birds have abandoned her, but she clings to her identity as a witch.
Laurence (never Larry, he hates being called Larry) does not talk to animals but has an unusual affinity for machines: He invents a two-second time machine and creates artificial intelligence in his closet. He ditches school and crosses state lines to attend a rocket launch; he is the “mascot of the Single-Stage Orbital Rocket Gang.”
When Laurence and Patricia collide in their gawky prepubescent bodies they have no idea that their friendship may one day save, or doom, the planet. What they do know is that they finally found someone with whom they can be, and share, their deepest, truest selves.
Anders creates a mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy that both honors and dissembles classic troupes (robots, time/space travel, and end-of-the-world-scenarios), while challenging readers to fill in the blank:“(‘Faith is to religion as love is to____.’)”
Faith is central to religion, just as love is central for being human—at least according to CH@NG3M31, aka Peregrine, aka artificial intelligence young Laurence creates in his closet and young Patricia nurtures. All humans really want to is be loved for who we are. This is one of the fundamental truths at the heart of Anders’ story.
Over a decade passes. Patricia has responsibilities as an adult witch living San Francisco. She helps confused domestic animals find their way home. She checks on junkies, and makes rounds through emergency rooms, surreptitiously healing. She writes letters to her local government on behalf of disgruntled or displaced woodland (or park-living) creatures. Mostly she battles against Aggrandizement. She only recently begins to ask questions about the Unraveling: what is the meaning, the implication, the outcome—no one will say.
Laurence lives in San Francisco as well, “working on solving gravity” as part of the Ten Percent Project (his physics paper on gravity tunneling as interstellar space travel actually inspires the project’s creator, Milton Dirth). Laurence is dating Serafina, who builds emotional robots, but eventually declares: “We don’t need better emotional communication from machines. We need people to have more empathy.”
Anders allows the worlds of science and fantasy to blend fluidly, as though the distinction is something constructed but not real—dissembled. Her characters are smart, funny and multi-dimensional, the plot wide-reaching without over-grasping—believable but not over-explained. (The return nod to “Mary Ann in Autumn,”* and recommendation of “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” feel like inside jokes or clues left for readers.)
This story ultimately demonstrates love can, and likely will, exist in unexpected places: between friends, between witches and humans, even between nature and a machine. Love will save us all.