BOOK REVIEW: Among Others by Jo Walton

SYNOPSIS: A teenaged girl in 1979 deals with her witch of a mother, faeries, a difficult boarding school life, and the joys of discovering science fiction and fantasy.

MY RATING:
MY REVIEW
PROS: Very personal first person past tense epistolary narrative puts the reader in Mor’s mindset.
CONS: Readers not in the target age group will have difficulty engaging the book.
VERDICT: A milestone in Jo Walton’s oeuvre.

There are books that defy easy categorization and analysis. They are audacious, complex and stunning pieces.  Trying to summarize such books for others is difficult.  These books dazzle, and your words feel inadequate. That is the central problem in engaging with Among Others, the latest novel from Jo Walton.

In the abstract, summarizing the book is easy. The year is 1979. Mor is the remaining half of a set of twins, can do magic and talks to ‘faeries’. For reasons revealed gradually, she has run away from her mother following a murky incident involving herself, her dead sister, and her mother. Mor runs into the arms of her father, whom she had never met.  Soon, she is shipped off by her paternal aunts to boarding school.

Readers at this point might be forgiven for thinking “Harry Potter”. Unlike Harry, Mor keeps secret her magic and the faeries.  She really has only one outlet and one escape from the tyranny of her existence; science fiction.

Among Others offers a slice of Mor’s life from 1979 to 1980 as she deals with her boarding school, her father and aunts, her attempts to find a like-minded group of people (a karass), and a slow revelation of just how she became disabled, how her sister died, and what her mother has to do with all of it. But really, as broad a story as that sounds, the narrative is not as substantial as you might think.  The heart of the book isn’t in that plot, it’s in Mor’s engagement with the science fiction of the day.

Mor is a precocious science fiction reader. As we meet her, she has already devoured some difficult and challenging SF (especially Delany), and we get to see and experience Mor’s first encounters and impressions of a swath of the field from the 1970’s and 1980. A bibliography of those works is posted at Jo Walton’s blog. Some are only mentioned in passing, others Mor chews on, and thinks about at length. We get to see her delights, frustrations and ruminations on a wide range of books. Like her creator, Mor has definite and unbridled opinions on them all.

For a book with such a reading list, it should be no surprise that the book is a paean to libraries. It’s dedicated to librarians, and is probably the first and only science fiction novel I’ve ever read that uses the phrase “inter-library loan”. I applaud the book for its dedication and respect to those who work with books.

But what I have not made clear, but should, is that Among Others is clearly a very personal book. The first line is from Virgil: Et haec, olim, meminisse iuvabit. The standard translation of that is “one day, remembering even these things will bring pleasure”. These are the words of Mor, but I think the words of the author as well. I am not saying that Mor is Jo Walton at this age. I know very well the perils of mistaking an author for one of her characters. The technical term for such people, as Larry Niven once said, is ‘idiot’.

And yet, consider this bit from the prologue, set in 1975:

Think of this as a memoir. Think of it as one of those memoirs that’s later discredited to everyone’s horror because the writer lied and is revealed to be a different colour, gender, class and creed from the way they’d made everybody think. I have the opposite problem. I have to keep fighting to stop making myself sound more normal. Fiction’s nice. Fiction lets you select and simplify. This isn’t a nice story, and this isn’t an easy story. But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story. It’s not like you’d believe it anyway.

So in some sense, Among Others is Jo Walton’s memoir of growing up with science fiction and fantasy. The faeries and magic are symbols used to explore her past, and her growing up, as an individual and a reader. I would be surprised if there is significant distance between the opinions of Jo Walton at that age and Mor in terms of the books she reads. Reading reviews and other matter by Walton only reinforces this idea for me.

The books and texts that Mor reads, inform and infuse the text. And it is here that being familiar with the science fiction that Mor talks about has real value and payoff for the reader. I’m certain, even having read many of these works myself, that I am missing some of these connections, and parallels.  I’d encourage you to discover them for yourself. I will highlight a couple of them to show you what I mean.

Mor does like Heinlein and his literary creation, Lazarus Long, quite a bit. There is an uncomfortable, sexually-tinged incident early in the relationship between Mor and her father. Mor speaks directly about Time Enough for Love and the parallels are obvious.

And Samuel Delany’s Triton (now called Trouble on Triton) is a keystone of her reading and has aspects that infuse much of the novel and its characters in regards to themes and the layering of characters and their identities. But what these connections between the books that Mor reads, and the life that she leads, reminds me of is one of Mor’s major attempts at magic, to form a karass, a community of people she engages with. Given the rules of magic in this universe, it’s impossible to say for sure, but its arguable that Mor did not only create her karass, but influenced the entirety of the science fiction field and its population by her act of magic.

At a later point in this novel, Mor even considers this possibility for herself, something that I thought of not long after her act of magic. So, in the universe of this novel, if Mor is right, its possible that the version of me that exists there came to science fiction thanks to Mor’s magic. Shades of Amber and Roger Zelazny! (A particular favorite of Mor’s, I hasten to add)

And yet on the other hand, given the nature of magic in this book, it’s entirely arguable that Mor is making it all up. I do think that objective evidence, in the context of the novel, does finally come to light. However, for a good portion of the book, I wondered if you could read Among Others as Mor making up everything about magic and faeries, or self-deluding herself as to their existence.

I think I’ve made it clear  just how complex this book is, especially for a reader of the right age, who has read the referenced books. But what it all boils down to is this: I think the book is a celebration, a way to say to herself, and to readers like herslef (and me): “It DID get better. The past wasn’t so bad. Here’s how I made it. Maybe you did it in a similar way, too.”

So, then, the main weakness of the book is not in any of the mechanics of the writing or the text. The book is wonderfully written with language, character and setting. The weakness is the limitations of the target audience of the book, and whether it will appeal to people outside that audience.

Readers of the right demographic will find Among Others to be lightning in a bottle, reflecting perhaps their own first engagement with science fiction, the love of books, and first encounters with the myriad worlds of science fiction.  For that reader,  Among Others is a stunning achievement and might be Walton’s masterpiece.

As good as Among Others is, I do hope that we see more and even better novels from Walton. I think the Mor in Jo Walton would be disappointed if she did not try.