Monday, 5 September 2016

Jo Walton: Among Others (2011)

Edition: Tor (2011)
Review number: 1502

Diary of a lonely teenager? Misfit at boarding school? Both form and setting of Among Others may seem to have been done until there is nothing new which could be extracted from the limp and tired ideas. Has Jo Walton managed it?

Morwenna (Mor) has run away from her mother's home in Wales, and sought her estranged father, who she has not seen since she was a baby. Her father's sisters promptly see her sent to Arlinghurst, a boarding school, one specialising in sports - not the most sympathetic environment for a teenage bookworm with a damaged foot. Mor has another thing which makes her different: all her life she has been able to see fairy spirits invisible to most, and believes her mother is a witch whose powers Mor has inherited (though she does not want to use these selfishly, as she feels that her mother does). It is interesting that the school is almost completely devoid of magic - she has to work at it through acts like burning letters from her mother - unlike the spirit filled world of the Welsh valleys she knew before.

Much of the novel is about the science fiction she reads, exhaustively, perceptively, precociously, and perhaps unbelievably. Most of what she says will perhaps mean little to those who haven't read everything from Poul Anderson to Roger Zelazny, or those who, like myself, don't share her likes and dislikes. I can really see this book being virtually unreadable if you don't at least know something about Samuel Delany and gender politics, John Brunner and dystopias, characterisation in Ursula Le Guin, world-building in J.R.R. Tolkien (just to mention a few of the recurring topics and authors). But at the same time this extended love letter to science fiction is surely one aspect of this novel which made it successful in both the Hugo and Nebula awards, joining the handful of genre classics which have won both.

At the same time, it is possible to read the novel as a magic realist work, where the magic seen by Mor is her own way of dealing with her life - an imaginative piece of private world-building. It is perhaps important if this is Walton's intention (whether it is or not only really becomes clear at the end). In some ways, the imaginary world view of the novel is more interesting, and gives a completely different significance to the diary, as an act of therapy.

How much you like Among Others will depend very much on how irritating you find Mor as central character, how much you understand and sympathise with her likes and dislikes in science fiction. I found her more annoying as I progressed through the book, and the dogmatic science fiction pronouncements seemed less interesting and more self indulgent on Walton's part. This is perhaps because Mor does not seem to change a great deal, which is surely a realistic portrayal of a teenager starting a new school, especially not one with a traumatic past. The dramatic events which led to her arrival at Arlinghurst are followed by...nothing much really. Making friends and enemies. Lots of reading science fiction. A bit of learning - her introduction to the works of T.S. Eliot is one of the more memorable moments of the novel.

While I can see why Among Others won awards, it feels to me that it did not really deserve to do so. The subject matter resonated with science fiction fandom, which explains why it won. But I would rate it lower because Mor was so annoying, and also because to me the ending was trite and unconvincing. My rating: 5/10.