01/06/2011. Contributed by Richard Palmer
pub: TOR/Forge. 302 page hardback. Price: $24.99 (US), $28.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2153-4).
check out website: www.tor-forge.com
Jo Walton’s ‘Among Others’ is a meta-fictional coming of age fantasy novel. Mori Phelps, a young Welsh girl, is engaged in an epic-fantasy style battle with her own mother, a witch. The novel only really concerns itself with the consequences of this fight, however. At the opening of the novel, this fight has already left Mori’s twin sister dead and her crippled. The fight with her mother does surface now and again in ‘Among Others’ but it and the fantastical elements are incidental to the more real world concerns of Walton’s work.
Mori, a bright girl, dealing with the fall-out from her conflicts with her mother and the travails of adolescence, finds herself literally among others. Having made it quite clear that she is unhappy, including running away from home, Mori is sent to live in England with her father and attend a boarding school at the expense of her rich aunts.
Though Mori is undoubtedly glad to be free of her mother’s influence, she isn’t completely happy with her new life in England. She has to deal with the politics of the boarding school and the tendency of her aunts to obsess over the vagaries of the British class system. Not only this, but she is at an age where she is developing as a person both emotionally and physically with all the pain that brings to people.
Presented as a diary, ‘Among Others’ views the world through the genre fiction read by Mori. The novel invites genre fans to revel in the shared cultural experience of growing up reading SF and fantasy. There are plenty of authors and works that could be considered pretty key to the field and therefore will be familiar to most people likely to be reading this if only by reputation. For example, in homage to the late, great Kurt Vonnegut Jr, she names the SF book club that she joins as a karass.
The book club is useful in the novel. Most of the work referenced is seen through the eyes of Mori and thus tends to have her own interpretation of it, not that this is inherently a bad thing, of course. It’s good if reactions to fiction are personal. What the book club allows for, though, is for other characters to bring a little more of a critical eye to the books discussed. Jo Walton, of course, writes some excellent SF/F criticism herself. For example, our narrator loves the work of Heinlein and takes a lot from him and Samuel Delany with regard to her views on human sexuality at a time when she is starting to explore her own feelings and desires. Heinlein’s liberal attitude to sexual relations helps makes her more accepting of homosexuality for example. When she meets with Wim, a handsome young man from her book club and gets into discussion regarding Heinlein, she is horrified to find that Wim believes Heinlein to be a bit of a fascist. She feels that Heinlein's work is more about the dignity of the individual than anything else.
I suggested that the fantastical element of the novel are a thread in the novel and they are. However, Mori does consider the implications of using magic. She fears that even attempting to use her magic for what she considers to be ‘good’ ends could lead to disaster for other people. Not to mention the consequences for people’s ability to exercise their own free will. For this reason, Mori takes the decision to only use magic for defence.
There is a little risk in choosing to write meta-fiction with such a personal voice. If you’re not familiar with the source texts, it could exclude some readers. Fortunately, though, Jo Walton is an excellent writer. She weaves all these books through the text deftly and there is joy to be found in recognising some of the references and discoveries made by the narrator.
If I have a complaint, it’s that ‘Among Others’ is perhaps a little on the serious side. Admittedly, that is quite in keeping with the background to the Mori's character. Her experiences to the opening of the novel and her situation do, understandably, make her a little serious minded. In places, I wasn’t entirely happy with the character, her criticism of her aunt’s obsession with social standing and school prizes from decades ago as silly is entirely fair. It is silly. However, there was the odd point where I thought that her intelligence and serious nature did spill into condescension. Quiet, admittedly and so I don’t think I could describe it as an arrogant disregard for those around her. Any fears that I have for it in that regard are further dispelled by her good friendship with Deirdre, a girl less bright than most of their peer-group who suffers for this. I may have been unfortunately influenced by the Cory Doctorow cover quote and reading his words in the context of some of his work.
So, while I started reading SF a decade after the setting of this novel, making some of my loves a little different – I’m with Wim, can’t stand Heinlein and I’m not sure that he’s even that relevant now – I can relate to the importance that books in general can have in someone’s life. Also, for fairly obvious reasons, I can’t know what it’s like for a girl in adolescence, but plenty of that did resonate.
As a coming of age story and a love letter to SF, this is a rather good novel. Well worth reading. Much to enjoy here.
Note: Jo Walton also, handily, provided a list of all the books referenced in the novel:- http://papersky.livejournal.com/509278.html#cutid1
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