Among Others

Jo Walton
Among Others Cover

Jo Walton - Among Others (2010)


"If you love books enough, books will love you back."

Jo Walton's 'Among Others' is an incredibly special book. It's a wonderfully charming magical realist coming of age story, but it's also an acute and perceptive dissection of SF/F and its fandom, as well as an exploration of and a tribute to the transcendent power of books themselves. A lot of the appeal of 'Among Others' is that it understands what its like to fall in love with fictional characters and worlds, and is able to connect with the reader's own experience of doing so, whilst subtly pulling them into its own world. The end result is a book that celebrates both the escapist power of fantastic fiction, its power to give us comfort and solace when everything around us is at its grimmest, but also its power to open our minds to new perspectives.

The book is written as the diary of Mori Phelps, a Welsh teenager growing up in the late 70's who has lost her twin sister and had her leg injured in a magical conflict with her mother. In the aftermath she has run away and social services have put her in the care of her estranged father rather than with the Aunt and Uncle she's known all her life. To her chagrin, she finds herself living in England and being sent to a public boarding school. The constant through this period of change, as she adjusts to her new surroundings, begins to recover from her trauma, and starts to make friends, is the solace she finds in reading SF and Fantasy.

Walton uses the fantastical elements sparingly, having come up with a magic system based around coincidence and chance connections. So one can, if one chooses, read them as Mori's coping mechanisms for dealing with the trauma of her mother's abuse and the death of her sister. Setting it after the original confrontation with her mother - Mori even compares her life now to the end of 'The Return Of The King', with the characters recounting the cost of their adventures as they try to return home - allows the book to structurally focus on how Mori faces life after this event, leading to a more mature, reflective book. It also allows Walton to focus on things closer to the reader's experiences, such as how dismal school is when you are a loner and a bookworm, or the joy of discovering new books with new ideas. SF is supposed to be about new ideas, so it's perhaps not surprising that a love of SF is generally fostered at a young and impressionable age. For all the foibles of the genre at its most adolescent, some of why it strikes us so strongly at that age is because at its best it does open young minds to new ideas, whether the gee whiz sensawonda of the pulps, genuine physical and scientific concepts in hard SF, or sociopolitical ideas in soft SF.

Mori's voice is a deft tool in Walton's hands. She is precocious and instantly likable. She comes across as eminently level headed and sensible, which helps ground the magic and fairies, and is quite the balancing act on Walton's part to boot. Much of the appeal of 'Among Others' is in the way that Walton deftly traces the journey that many of us go through as avid SF/F fans. Mori fell hard for 'The Lord Of The Rings', and has read the entire SF section in her local library alphabetically, from Poul Anderson through to Roger Zelazny. She spends a lot of time reading and processing various SF novels, and Walton brilliantly uses this to illustrate Mori's taste and her personality. I will admit that possibly all this is less resonant for people who have not grown up on 70's SF. But 'Among Others' doesn't reference SF classics just to give the reader the fuzzy glow of nostalgia. However, with the perfect attention to detail - the Ace Double paperback of Delany's 'Empire Star' WAS packaged with a truly atrocious book ('The Tree Lord Of Imeten' by Tom Purdon, since you ask); Theodore Sturgeon's 'A Touch Of Strange' DOES have a very fetching cover - I defy any enthusiast for 70's SF paperbacks not to get a warm glow. Walton uses her references to advance the plot or to develop Mori's characters. For instance, Mori has her perspective on sexuality widened by reading Le Guin, Delany and Heinlein, which prepares her for her developing feelings towards Wim, and means that later on in the book she is able to decide for herself that the boarding school's vilification of homosexuality is unjust. In this way, 'Among Others' shows the importance of young people having access to a wide range of books by writers from diverse backgrounds. The book also shows how speculative fiction and fantasy can introduce young readers to other fields of education and learning; Mori winds up reading Plato because she's interested in what she learns about him from Mary Renault's historical fantasy books.

Walton also succeeds because she just gets taste right, which I suspect is more difficult than it sounds. I should be careful here, because the temptation for the reviewer is to assume that Mori's taste directly reflects Walton's, and while I'm sure the book is informed by Walton's experience growing up as an SF fan, this is a work of fiction. So Mori's taste needs to hang together, to feel like a real person's taste. She doesn't just enjoy everything she reads uncritically; she is very much not a fan of Philip K. Dick, she doesn't know what to make of Christopher Priest's 'Inverted World', and she refuses to read Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series because the publisher has the audacity to compare it to her beloved Tolkien on the front cover. However she is both passionate and perceptive when it comes to the books she loves. She points out that Robert Silverberg's range, while impressive, is as much a curse as it is a blessing, which anyone who's made their way into the massive output of his golden age will appreciate, and how much of the appeal of Zelazny's Amber series is down to Corwin's voice. There's a great section where she intelligently argues that Thomas Hardy could have learned a lot from Delany and Silverberg. Naturally, there is a lot on Tolkien, and Mori is insightful about what makes 'Lord Of The Rings' so special - it does feel like a journey in a fully realised world, and I think this goes some way to explaining its enduring appeal and almost talismanic significance for multiple generations of fans.

But all this would merely be very impressive window dressing if the story itself did not succeed on its own terms. Following on from her twin's death, Mori has to decide that life is actually worth living again. As she struggles to relate to her estranged father and his extended family and makes friends at the library's SF/F book club, she slowly moves towards acceptance and moving on. By showing us her protagonist's mundane every day life, Walton is able to build to this organically, and to weave in the fantastic elements in a way that feels organic as well. When she helps the fairies to build a gateway for the dead to escape her mother's evil clutches, the thing that saves her from being pulled into limbo by her dead sister is that she's only halfway through Delany's 'Babel-17', and if she dies now she'll never finish it. This is a beautiful moment because it seems like such a trivial thing not to die for, but sometimes it genuinely is the little things that keep us hanging on. By the time of Mori's next confrontation with the fairies and her mother, she realises that not only does she have group of friends and relatives who care for her, she wants to continue living, to grow and to experience new things. It is this realisation that allows her to finally move on, and to take agency for herself. This realisiation, that the real world is not only worth fighting for, but worth living for, is a genuinely powerful and moving moment.