Friday, September 2, 2011

Among Others - Jo Walton

Among Others is one of the novels that was suggested for review number 200 earlier this year. I decided to go with another book eventually, because I was looking for something I was unlikely to pick up spontaneously. Among Others looked so interesting that I ordered a copy of it as well and it has been waiting on the to read stack ever since. I've read an awful lot of Walton's writing but none of it is actually fiction. She writes a column on, lots of reviews on older works of science fiction and fantasy as well as a discussion on the Hugo Awards nominees and winners. Next Sunday 1999 will be discussed. I don't always agree with Walton but her reviews are usually well worth reading and she has added more than a few titles to my to read list. I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that Walton added to the list again with this novel.

Fifteen year old Morwenna has grown up in a town in South Wales. When we first meet her, she has recently lost her twin sister and has run away to a father she barely knows. He is sending her to Arlinghurst, a boarding school in England, something that is not going to be easy on Morwenna. She is an outsider. Everything sets her apart from her fellow students; her accent, her bright intellect, he peculiar family and the fact that she is a cripple. As a child, Morwenna used to find refuge in two things. Her connection with the spirit world, something her mother is completely caught up in, and reading science fiction novels. The library become a refuge, but there is no magic at Arlinghurst however, and attempts to introduce it, only leads to unwanted attention from her mother. A reckoning with her past in unavoidable for Morwenna. She will have to come to terms with her loss and settle affairs with her mother.

The novel is entirely written in the form of a diary, with entries set in late 1979 and early 1980. Among Others is not an autobiography, but Walton seems to have put quite a lot of her own life into the novel. She was born in South Wales for instance, turned fifteen in 1979, did attend an English boarding school and read science fiction novels voraciously. Morwenna also shares a lot of opinions with Walton on novels. She's no fan of Philip K. Dick for instance, and has reservations about some of Heinlein's later novels even if she loves his earlier work. I haven't read any of Walton's other novels but I can't imagine them being as personal as this one. For people who are interested in the question to what extend this novel incorporates events from the author's life, I'll refer you to a a very interesting piece Walton wrote for John Scalzi's Whatever blog.

There is no denying it, Among Others is a book for geeks. There are lots and lots of references to science fiction classics. Morwenna reads Silverberg, Le Guin, Delayny, Zelazny, Heinlein, Clarke, Niven and Tiptree just to name a few (a complete list of novels mentioned in Among Others can be found here). It makes the novel something of a gamble. I read a lot but I don't come close to even having read half the titles Morwenna mentions. Walton mostly sticks to the more well known works so I pretty much recognized everything she mentions. Still, a fantasy novel that relies this much on science fiction titles, will put some readers of. In 1979 it might not have been the case yet, but the two genres have developed their own groups of readers with only limited overlap. Still, as a love letter to science fiction and fantasy, the book is a very good read. Morwenna's diary entries are full of entrances that show just how much her thinking is influenced by what she reads. One nice example from early on in the novel:
Robert Heinlein says in Have A Spacesuit, Will Travel that the only things worth studying are history, languages, and science. Actually, he adds maths, but honestly they left out the mathematical part of my brain. Mor got all the Maths.
Morwenna deciding on the subjects she wants to take - Thursday 6th September 1979
The list things Morwenna finds in these novels that connect with this young girl's world is very impressive. It makes you think twice about labeling science fiction as a genre for teenage boys. The fantasy element in the novel is provided by a subtle kind of magic. It's very easy to deny its existence, which is why not many people believe in it in the first place. Magic that Morwenna hasn't quite figured out how to safely use yet. Most of her magical exploits have been linked to the fairies Morwenna sees in the abandoned industrial sites of South Wales. They're nothing like the elves described in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, although Morwenna has a theory on how Tolkien might have arrived at his image of these creatures.With the novel being written from the first person and the fact that magic never really seems to impact anything directly, there is always a slight feel of the unreliable narrator in these sections but at the same time she makes you want to believe Morwenna. Especially since she has her reservations about the ethics of trying to influence events that way.

Under all the magic and science fiction references, Among Others is still mostly a story of a girl trying to find her balance again. When we meet her, things can't possibly get any worse. Gradually, Morwenna decides that despite the pain in her leg, the hole left behind where her twin used to be, her difficult family and being an outsider everywhere she goes, there is still reason to go on. Sometimes she is suborn or plain unreasonable but Morwenna is not given to self-pity or excessive displays of emotion. Her diary entries show a girl whit a more rational mind than most teenagers display, an inquisitive mind, constantly asking questions about what she encounters in the world. Some readers my find it hard to get close to Morwenna, in her diary she usually takes a bit of distance from the situations she describes. Personally, I thought to development from despair and a sense of loss to mild optimism and self-confidence is very well done.  

Among Others is one of those novels I'd like to see pop up in next year's awards shortlists. I'm not sure if it is the sort of novel that has a large enough appeal to actually win one, but I agree with a lot of the critics that it is definitely one of the books 2011 that one ought to read. I can see why some readers might not like it, but for me, it is absolutely one of the most interesting and well-written 2011 publications I've read. For fans of 1960 and 1970s genre fiction, it has a certain nostalgic appeal. Remembering reading a favourite novel for the first time definitely adds to this story. But even if, like me, you haven't read that many of the novels Walton mentions, the novel is very much worth reading. I'd say, give it a try.

Book Details
Title: Among Others  
Author: Jo Walton  
Publisher: Tor  
Pages: 302  
Year: 2011
Language: English  
Format: Hardcover  
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2153-4
First published: 2011


  1. This definitely looks like my thing :) Sounds intriguing..

  2. I'm on the waiting list at the library for this book, I think I'm still like #60 on the list, because everyone wants to read it, and they only got one copy!

    I'm sure this is going to be popping up on all sorts of awards lists as well.

  3. @ FantasyLass: Let me know what you think if you do read it :P)

    @ littelredreviewer: It was published in January, shouldn't be much longer until the mass market edition appears.

  4. I was not exactly sure if I should pick up this novel. I don't know why it didn't sound to be on my liking. I am still not entirely sure, but thanks to your review I will definitely give it a chance :)

  5. I found it very hard to predict which readers would appreciate this book. You might like it but no guarantee ;)