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.