Why Do Birds

Damon Knight
Why Do Birds Cover

Why Do Birds


Ed Stone claims to be from the past. As he says in the second sentence of the novel, "I think I was kidnapped from nineteen thirty-one and brought here [2002], and I think the aliens sent me back to put the whole human race in a box." He is willing to accept that he may be crazy, but his clothing and fillings are period-appropriate, and he carries with him a seemingly-brand-new copy of Astounding Stories from 1931 (which has an odd role to play in the story as meta-commentary). He also wears a ring that he claims was given to him by the aliens, which causes anybody who comes in contact with it to acquiesce to his wishes: it seems the aliens (if they existed) were not unaware that his request might be met with skepticism. The ring works. All of this is provided to the reader in the first two chapters.

This novel seems to have time traveled from an earlier age, much like its protagonist. It is almost as if Knight set himself the task of writing a Golden Age novel in the nineties. And yes, I realize that 1931 was pre-Golden Age. It may in fact want to be a pulp story like the one in Stone's copy of Astounding, but the pace is slower and the themes more complex. Still, all of the characters speak like they've stepped out of an earlier era. There's only one female character, and while her role is a large and participatory one, we aren't given a lot of insight into her driving forces. Nor do we see the driving forces behind many of the characters at all; even Stone is a cipher. The thing that most gives it its archaic feel is the technology. For a nineties projection of the early twenty first century there are some odd gaps in technology. At one point in the story DNA testing would have been mighty useful. I would rather have seen some line about how it had been outlawed instead of having it ignored. Minor complaint.

The tone of the book is about what you would expect from something that is subtitled "a comic novel of the destruction of the human race," and which is prefaced by quotes from both the Koran and the Marx Brothers. There's something pretty hilarious about Stone's forthrightness, and about the ways that people set about putting his plans in action. I think my favorite chapters involve a bunch of random talking head characters sitting around and debating logistics and marketing to get people into the Cube. It drags a bit in the final acts, and doesn't quite answer every question it puts forward, but I found it pretty satisfying. Ed Stone is a strange messiah, but these are strange times. If he's right we have about two more years. Will you stay behind or choose the Cube?