Among Others by Jo Walton
Reviewed by Michael Levy
21 March 2011
This is one of those books that really forces a reviewer to think about audience. What I would and could say about Jo Walton's new novel, Among Others, in a less specialized venue, like a newspaper or a general review magazine such as Publishers Weekly, is very different from what I can and will say about it here, in Strange Horizons. Walton's story is very much one for insiders, for us—the initiated, the Slans, or, to be a little less egomanical, for those of us who grew up lonely among non-readers, non-SF readers or, well, among others.
Mor is a twin, or rather she was one. We never find out all of the details, but her sister was run over by a car and killed, with Mor permanently lamed in the same accident. The girls, growing up in a dying industrial town in Wales in the mid 1970s, were at the time engaged in a supernatural battle with their mother, a witch and madwoman, who was trying to use them to work dark magic, whose exact purpose is never explained but is presumed by Mor to have been potentially catastrophic. The girls had never known their father and their mother was abusive. After the death of her sister, Mor ran away, lived in a state facility for a while, and then, in 1979, was reunited with her English father. We learn about all of this, well after the fact, by looking over Mor's shoulder as she makes daily entries in her diary and mulls over earlier events, writing in reverse so as to assure her story's privacy.
Mor's father has never shown any interest in her before. She soon discovers that, although he himself is essentially penniless, he lives in great comfort working as the estate manager for his wealthy, unmarried and, to Mor's eye at least, incredibly boring older sisters. As the girl quickly realizes, the sisters have her father under their collective thumb. This includes quickly shipping Mor off to Arlinghurst, the tony girls' school where the aunts had themselves spent their youth. Mor, of course, doesn't fit in at Arlinghurst at all. She's an academically gifted, working class Welsh girl with a disability surrounded by snooty, well-to-do, and generally not very academically inclined English girls, most of whom seem to judge others primarily based on the quality of their fathers' cars and their mothers' fur coats. It doesn't help, of course, that in order to make some of the less friendly girls back off, Mor has let it be known that she's a witch. Her only friendships at Arlinghurst, and these are both iffy and on-again, off-again, are with other outsiders, a somewhat slow Irish girl, a Jewish girl, and an academically gifted lesbian.
Oh, and then there are the fairies. These aren't the tall, sexy elves of Tolkien, nor yet the twee little creatures of children's literature. Rather, they're genuinely alien beings, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes hideously ugly, who can talk when they choose to and even make sense on occasion, but who are, for the most part, uninterested in humanity except as it serves their own often mysterious purposes. Mor had befriended several of the creatures back in Wales, where they're very common, if invisible to most people, especially one she's named Glorfindel (she's read Tolkien, of course, though this fairy is nothing like his namesake), and Glorfindel in turn has helped her deal with both her mother’s abuse and her sister's death. Unfortunately, most of the fairies around Arlinghurst don't want much to do with Mor and, like the Arlinghurst girls, essentially ignore her.
Mor does extremely well academically (in everything except maths; she hates maths) and her life, if lonely, is generally peaceful, except on those rare occasions when her mother, magically manifesting in Mor's dormitory room all the way from Wales, breaks through the girl's wards and attempts to murder her. What makes Mor's life worth living, however, are books. She loves poetry, the philosophy of Plato, and, more than anything else, science fiction. Via Mor's diary, Walton gives us what is essentially a quick tour of the best science fiction (with a little fantasy thrown in) of the late 1970s. There's lots of Zelazny, Silverberg, Le Guin, and Delany, of course. As is usually the case with young people who are heavily addicted to the stuff (I'm talking me, and thee, and, of course, Walton) she reads plenty of the classics as well, mostly with very little regard for chronology. Although we're never specifically told how much of Among Others is autobiographical, it's clear from the book's cover material, and for that matter, the general feel of the story, that a lot of it is based in the facts of Walton's life. Like so many of Us, she, or at least her protagonist, is a loner, living among others, who finds the meaning of life through science fiction.
Magic in Among Others is kind of fey and hard to get one’s head around. It feels a lot like wish fulfillment fantasy, and the book does invite the reader, at least initially, to consider the possibility that it's all in Mor's head and that she is in fact delusional. Near the end of the book, however, when someone else begins to see the fairies, it becomes clear that they and the supernatural are very real indeed. Mishandled, magic can twist the entire universe in order to achieve its users' ends. For example, because she's terribly lonely, and because she's read her Vonnegut, Mor wants to find a karass, a group of people with whom she actually belongs, and, almost immediately after she verbalizes this desire in her diary, she discovers that there's a science fiction reading group meeting in the town library. Has this group always existed without her knowing about it? Or, alternately, did the magic in fact change several dozen lives, going back perhaps to before Mor herself was even born, in order to bring those people together in just the right place and at just the right time? To what extent has the universe been rearranged so that Mor can find a group of like-minded people with whom to discuss Zelazny's Amber books and Silverberg's Dying Inside? The possibility that she may have accidentally made people into puppets, particularly a couple of very nice librarians and a boy who not only likes SF, but who is also sexy as all get out, disturbs her enormously. She doesn't want to use magic to turn other people into automatons as her mother has. Walton never entirely resolves this difficulty, though one could argue that, given how close the magic she portrays is to wish fulfillment, a resolution may be impossible. Though Mor tries very hard not to manipulate people, and especially Wim, her new boyfriend, she never quite overcomes the nagging suspicion that she may have exerted more control over events than is entirely appropriate. But what the heck. Everyone, except her mother, is happy and the conversation is good.
Although in many ways very different from the work of Junot Diaz, Among Others bears some similarities to that author's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a non-fantasy novel which gives us an equally good, equally loving portrait of the hardcore science fiction fan as both outsider and geek, but also as oddly heroic. Throughout Walton's novel I found myself thinking "oh, I've read that one," or, "gee, I've never noticed that connection before," or, somewhat more empowering, "yes, I've always felt that way about Le Guin." Among Others can occasionally be unsettling, however, particularly in its portrayal of magic as not merely dangerous but, in the wrong hands, somewhat boring. Mor's aunts turn out to be witches too, using magic to control her father, but because they have no real imagination and are themselves products of Arlinghurst, their idea of magic involves little more than defending the status quo. In Mor's case they do this by attempting to destroy her powers by convincing her (unsuccessfully) to get her ears pierced!
In conclusion, this is, very simply, a lovely book, well written, intelligent, and perceptive. It has its moments of drama and a number of nicely done scary bits as well, but mostly, despite the supernatural elements, it's just incredibly believable, the true tale of a brave geek girl forced to live much of her life among others, until, at long last—in a very modest rapture of the nerds—she finds some of her (and our) own kind with whom to spend her time.