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The Impossible Bird
Patrick O'Leary
Tor, 366 pages

The Impossible Bird
Patrick O'Leary
Patrick O'Leary has garnered a broad base of fans for his fiction based upon his novels Door Number Three, The Gift and The Impossible Bird plus his collection Other Voices, Other Doors. The success of his writing has encouraged him to continue his craft while working as an Associate Creative Director at Campbell-Ewald Advertising in Warren, Michigan. He makes his home in Detroit with his wife and sons.

Patrick O'Leary Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Door Number Three
SF Site Review: Other Voices, Other Doors
SF Site Review: The Gift

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

One problem with the notion of an afterlife is, what do you with all your spare time? Sure, it'd be great to have the leisure to read all you want, but this is eternity, after all. So after getting through entire opuses several times over, you might start to get bored. Then what do you do? Practice your putting?

That's the conundrum Patrick O'Leary confronts in The Impossible Bird. His answer provides disturbing reassurance that maybe there's a good reason for us to have limited shelf life.

Back in 1962, Danny Glynn and his older brother Mike have an archetypal UFO encounter. Upon return to "normal" life, they make a promise of extreme loyalty to one another that seals their fate. The true intention of the alien contact -- as well as adolescent sexual experimentation that underlies their adult angst -- isn't fully revealed until the denouement, which both explains the strange situation they find themselves and provides its moral.

That situation being that they are dead, with no recollection of the circumstances of their demise. The strangely positive side is that their deaths result in reconciliation not only between themselves as estranged brothers, but with the nature of their very existence.

In adulthood, Mike is a director of video commercials (O'Leary's "real" job, by the way, is in advertising), travelling to exotic location shoots to make the otherwise bland product look more desirable. The more cerebral Daniel, in contrast, is a professor of literature, father of a son, a recent widower who is starting to lose his grip. Mike, too, is struggling with a lost love, as well as a secret betrayal of his brother. The two might be left to separately wallow in their own misery and confusion were it not for: a) it becomes evident they are no longer among the living and b) they possess a singular quality that sets them apart from all the other dead people. This makes them the target of what appears to be an X-Files sort of government agency, which is holding Daniel's son hostage. The ransom: to find Mike and reveal his whereabouts. Meanwhile, Mike has been charged by a similar organization to find Daniel.

The hostage-takers are led by Dr. Klinder, a childhood teacher whose relationship to the brothers is actually more significant than mere mentor. Klinder explains that the afterlife is a sort of giant computer construct created by aliens to preserve human consciousness beyond their mortal bodies. But some of the dead don't want to stay in the construct forever. There is a way out. And they've recruited Mike to help attain their ends.

The "impossible" bird, by the way, is the hummingbird, "smallest bird in the world. Life span: five years... spunky little dinkos. Burn up calories like a marathoner. Gotta eat twice their body weight every day. Which means they eat all the time. Which means... They're starving." Just like people who are always hungering for something that will give meaning to their lives, but are never quite satiated. "You're hungry all the time, aren't you? You just don't know what for?"

Weird birds, people who besides being weird don't happen to be alive, a journey towards self-realization in a surreal world, it all sounds like a Jonathan Carroll novel. O'Leary spins it a little differently, however. While Carroll presents the fantastical as a natural, if supernatural, extension of mundane reality, here it is framed in the classic science fictional motif of aliens with superior intelligence seeking to preserve a species for whom they've grown affectionate. Without realizing their coddling removes the very conditions essential to their humanity.

Of course, like the whole idea of alien abduction, the notion that there's some superior species out there in the galaxy that perhaps has more of a clue to the reason for existence than we puny humans is another time-honored science fictional trope. The Impossible Bird makes fun of these genre conventions, but in a good-natured way. One great scene is where Mike has been directed to a library to find the answers to his questions, specifically the science fiction aisle. He pulls out books by Gene Wolfe and Spider Robinson to discover clues to what he's looking for, but he only reads further questions.

And isn't that why we read science fiction in the first place, to ponder our role as puny and often dumbass humans in the context of an enormous and unknowable universe? And whether it really matters.

O'Leary provides some possible answers. And for the most part he does it without being silly or simplistic. Funny and sad stuff. Which makes it pretty much true to life.

So, in case you don't have the afterlife to get caught up on all your reading, do yourself a favor and move this one up to the top of the pile. You won't live to regret it.

Copyright © 2003 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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