Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Title: Among Others
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook
Note: Nominated for this year’s Hugo award for Best Novel

Most of us feel miserable as teenagers, but we often don’t understand the depth of those feelings until adulthood. This is one of the things that intrigues me most about Jo Walton’s Among Others. Mor is aware that she’s isolated (being a working-class, Welsh, crippled girl in a posh British boarding school will do that to you) but will the depth of her isolation become truly apparent to her later on as an adult? Among Others is all about Mor’s isolation, her roiling thoughts, and her one coping mechanism: Reading a ton of science fiction and fantasy books.

Walton has structured the book in an unusual way. There are no chapters; instead, the book is presented as the diary Mor keeps during her first year of attendance at Arlinghurst, a boarding school in England. What’s more, the catastrophe that has shaped Mor’s circumstances – the castastrophe that tends to take centre stage in the books she so loves to read – is in the past, and due to the diary-like nature of the book is never presented in flashback.

Instead, we learn the following: Mor is the survivor of a pair of twins. Both of them, like their mother, were able to practice magic and converse with the fairies that lived in the ruins and forests surrounding their community in Wales. Her sister, also named Mor (one being short for “Morganna” and the other being short for “Morwenna”), died the previous November in a car accident that left the surviving Mor crippled.

Immediately before the accident, both twins had been involved in a fight against their mother. Mor is vague with the details, and says only that the fight was a magical one done to prevent their mother from turning into a “dark queen” – to quote Lord of the Rings – and gaining even more power. After the accident Mor ran away, and custody over her was not awarded to her extended family in Wales, but instead to her father, a man who abandoned the twins when they were children.

Now she’s been packed off to Arlinghurst by her father’s overbearing older sisters. Her only solace is reading loads of (now classic) science fiction and fantasy books from the late 70s – books by LeGuin, Zelazny, Heinlein, and Vonnegut, for example.

The omnipresence of science fiction and fantasy literature in Among Others accomplishes several things:

  • It establishes the time period: Mor’s diary takes place from 1979 to 1980.
  • It makes the narrator’s voice feel natural: Mor’s opinions about the books she reads are the kind of hyperbolic, righteous ones that are endemic to teenagers. I like to imagine that when she’s an adult, she’ll look back on her diary entries and cringe with embarrassment over how amateurish she sounded.
  • It reinforces one of the key themes in the book: That the magic that Mor reads about in her books is not like the magic she practices.

This last point is the most important. In many ways, Mor is looking for validation in what she reads, but she knows from her own attempts to practice magic – the consequences of which often scare her – that it’s much messier and less systematic in real life than it is in fiction. This also prepares us for the climax, when Mor finally confronts her mother again and manages to subdue her permanently using both her magic and her love of books.

However, the use of the diary format makes the final magical fight less immediate and rather anticlimactic. This is one of my biggest problems with Among Others. While I admire Walton’s consistency – magic in books isn’t like the real magic Mor knows, so why should the final battle read like something that came out of a book? – it’s not psychologically satisfying.

Perhaps this subversion of standard fantasy plots is why the book won the Nebula award for best novel, and why it’s also up for the Hugo award. However, I fear that the major reason for the book’s critical reception is precisely that it praises so many books that are part of the genre’s canon.

As an interesting parallel, think of how many Oscars The Artist won earlier this year. I haven’t seen it myself, but I understand the reservations of others who think the The Artist won because it praised the magic of movies and kept telling Hollywood how beautiful and pure it used to be. A similar strain of “Wasn’t sci-fi and fantasy fiction in the past just grand?” nostalgia threads itself throughout Among Others, and this became extremely grating. In essence, I worry that it’s going to win the Hugo because it gave the genre a hand job.

With all this in mind, did I enjoy Among Others? Yes. But do I think it deserves the Hugo award? As I said with Leviathan Wakes, no. Crafting a protagonist so eminently real as Mor is one thing. But trying to gain access to the Critically Praised Genre Novel Club just by invoking past members of said club is another.

Up next: The Big Short by Michael Lewis.

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Title: Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, Book #1)
Author: James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
Publisher: Orbit
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook
Note: Nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel

Like any well-adjusted nerd, I grew up with Star Wars as a healthy part of my cinematic diet. I didn’t know it then, but Star Wars belonged to the sub-genre of science fiction known as space opera. Despite my exposure to the original trilogy I still haven’t read much in the way of space opera, so Leviathan Wakes was as good an introduction as any. I read it because it was one of this year’s Hugo Award nominees.

From what I gather, Leviathan Wakes uses many of the elements common to space operas: a diaspora of humans spread across several colonies within the solar system, space stations, and asteroid mining. However, it also includes science fiction concerns that are more contemporary, like sociopathic corporations, terrestrial ecological limits, and the proper use of military power.

Please note: this review contains spoilers.

It all starts with Juliette Andromeda Mao, the scion of a lunar corporation who rejected her affluent upbringing to join the Belters – the restless, entrepreneurial, and hardscrabble people who have abandoned life on Earth and Mars to make a go of it in the asteroid belt. Julie’s gone missing, and it’s fallen to Detective Miller – a cop on Ceres – to do a cursory investigation for his employer, a security agency partially owned by Julie’s family.

James Holden, the commanding officer of of an ice freighter, has found an abandoned ship in the middle of space and is captaining a small shuttle to investigate it. However, when his home ship is destroyed by a third party attempting to protect the abandoned vessel from interference, he sends out a distress signal that inadvertently shatters the fragile balance of power between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Ultimately, Holden’s search for answers and for safe harbour dovetails with Miller’s search for Julie Mao, which leads them both to the discovery of an alien life form that poses a threat to all three factions.

First off, there are several things that Leviathan Wakes does right. In particular, I appreciated the effort that went into imagining what a non-terrestrial form of human society would look like. Corey came up with subtle but effective touches, like imagining the resinous scent of air that’s been scrubbed through machine filters for generations, or how Belters would come up with an exaggerated set of gestures to convey information despite the bulkiness of space suits.

Less successful, but still interesting, was the inbuilt antagonism that Belters had for Earthers. Early in the book, Miller is partnered with Havelock, a detective from Earth. Later on this is revealed as an attempt by his supervisor to isolate both men; since no other Belter detective wants to work with an Earther, she decides to saddle him with Miller, a lonely has-been cop downtrodden by alcoholism and a messy divorce.

Havelock’s presence is meant to highlight the mutual distrust that those from Earth, Mars, and the Belt have for each other, but this fell flat, as all of the animosity was one-way – although Miller’s peers were antagonistic towards Havelock, Havelock didn’t respond in kind. This left me wondering where exactly the focus of class/privilege in the book resided. Did Belters feel naturally superior to Earthers? Did Earthers feel naturally superior to Belters? It makes sense for the latter to be true in context, but all of the Earthers present in the story were either neutral or supportive of Belter politics.

Such is the case with Holden, who gets caught up trying to find his way out of the web of Martian armies, Belter rebels, and corporate interests that he’s gotten himself tangled up in. He’s such an upstanding person, always willing to do what is right, that in the end he’s as distinctive as a slice of bread. This points to one of my biggest problems with the book – the lack of nuanced characterization. Miller’s a depressed alcoholic trying to solve his Big Case so that he can Make Things Right and restore his self-respect. James Holden is an honest man who grew up on a farm/commune, of all places.

However, sad-sack cops and forthright farmboys have nothing on the real villain: a corporation that has discovered an engineered parasite created by another species and wants to reverse-engineer it so that it can genetically modify humans for intergalactic travel.

This is where the space zombies come in.

You heard me right. Space zombies. As in, people infected by said parasite, who die, reanimate, and then dissolve into some sort of fleshy goo that coalesces into a giant sentient hive-mind.

One one level, this is is pretty cool. Zombies have been popular for a while now, and this twist on the genre is gonzo enough to work. But the book already contains enough interesting speculation on intrastellar life and politics that adding mutagenic zombie parasites into the mix seems a tad garish.

Despite this, I still enjoyed the climax, where Miller finally does meet up with Julie – or what’s left of her after she gets infected. Throughout the novel, Miller’s focus on Julie Mao has taken hold of him so thoroughly that his conscience eventually transforms into her likeness. When he finally meets her in person and talks to her, and she understands what he’s saying and asking her to do – when she realizes that she’s become the index case of the infestation she tried to escape, and that she has to sacrifice herself to prevent others from meeting the same fate – it’s a moment of sadness and beauty.

Did I enjoy Leviathan Wakes? Yes. It had some intriguing sociological insights, and some lovely images and events going on, especially at the climax. Would I be interested in reading the sequels when they are released? Sure. However, do I think that this book is worthy of the Hugo Award? No.

I’ll discuss the merits of the Hugo nominees in greater depth later, but suffice it to say that I was looking for a book that made me go “wow” – and this book was not it. It was workman-like and competent, but it didn’t have the radical political commentary of The Disposessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, the intricate thoroughness of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or the sheer holy-crap-this-is-amazing-ness of American Gods. In other words, it broke absolutely no new territory – and if anything, I think the best science fiction or fantasy book of the year should do at least that much.

Up next: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt