Jan 31, 2011

Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others

There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books.
Among Others is written in the form of the diary of fifteen-year-old Morwenna Phelps. It’s set in 1979 and 1980, not long after an accident that killed Morwenna’s twin sister Morganna and left her with a disabled leg. Mori grew up in South Wales, but after her sister’s death she moved to England to live with the father she had never met – mostly because that meant she could escape her mother. She ends up being sent to boarding school by her father’s sisters, and spends a year discovering interlibrary loans, book clubs, and the solace that can be found in intellectual community – besides trying to learn how to live with the past, that is. This is only one level of Among Others: in addition to this, there’s the fact that Mori can do magic, that her mother is a witch, and that the accident that forever changed her life was the result of an attempt to put a stop to her plans.

Among Others is not the story of two teenagers trying to defeat a sorceress and save the world by the means of magic; it’s the story of what happens after that. I should start by saying that I don’t like the idea of reading fantasy as a collection of symbols that need to be decoded. I mean, at one level that’s how fantasy works, but as Ursula Le Guin has explained so well, the reason why it’s fantasy is exactly because there is no one-to-one correspondence between these symbols and imagery and meanings that could be expressed in plain language. There are emotional truths in these stories beyond what we know how to articulate. So when I say that the emotional truths in Among Others matter more than the fantasy elements per se, I am by no means dismissing the latter or saying that this distinguishes it from “ordinary” fantasy. The truths we have in this particular story have to do with growing up, with finding somewhere where you belong, with surviving unspeakable grief, and with turning to books not to escape real live, but to learn how to make sense of it.

This is a very quiet and understated novel, and it’s perhaps more about reading than about anything else. It’s about trying to find out about books you’ll love before the age of the Internet (I hadn’t yet been born at the time when the book is set, but I’m still old enough that I can relate to Mori’s appreciation for editions that listed what else the author had written – because really, how else would you find out back then?); it’s about encountering the books that will shape you into the person you are to become for the very first time; it’s about the ideas these books contain – how they find their way into your life and change how you see the world. Cory Doctorow has said it best:
For though Morwenna’s life has much that makes her unhappy, from her family to her pariah status to her gamey leg, these books are not an escape for her. She dives into them, certainly, and goes away from the world, but she find in them a whole cognitive and philosophical toolkit for unpicking the world, making sense of its inexplicable moving parts, from people to institutions. This isn’t escapism, it’s discovery.
Which brings me to my favourite thing about Among Others: the fact that it’s such a completely candid account of a teen girl’s intellectual growth. It’s rare to find a book that captures this process so well, probably due to our tendency to edit our memories as we grow and change and to attempt to harmonise them with the person we later became. These attempts to to gloss over things or rewrite history are not necessarily a result of dishonesty, but rather of the very human tendency to convince ourselves that the things, ideas and principles that matter the most to us have been around for much longer than they actually have. Once something becomes a part of us, it’s easy to lose sight of a time when this wasn’t so.

Among Others, however, does manage to resist this tendency. For example, Mori writes about going to see a production of The Tempest with her school and not being happy with the fact that Prospero was cast as a woman. She says:
I suppose the way it didn’t really work was in Prospero and Miranda’s relationship. It didn’t work as mother and daughter to me, at least, not and keep Prospero sympathetic. I read him as a man who is remote, and good to bother with a toddler, but a woman like that would be too unnatural for sympathy. Which isn’t to say I think women should be stuck with childrearing, but—how interesting that what comes across as doing the best he could in a man looks like neglect in a woman.
This may be a pretty cringe-worthy thing to say, but goodness knows I thought much worse when I was fifteen. And what’s so interesting about this passage is the fact that Mori is starting to notice that there’s a double-standard at work here. She responds the way all of us have been socialised to respond to neglectful mothers versus neglectful fathers, but then she thinks, “Wait a minute”. And she does so in a way that feels entirely realistic. All through the book, her moments of cluelessness, ignorance or naivety are managed just as effectively as this. Her struggles with ideas are never heavy-handed; you don’t feel the author as a puppet master in the background pulling the strings. On the contrary, Mori’s voice feels absolutely genuine. And as a result, readers can smile when they see her refer to James Tiptree Jr. as a he, or when she says she’ll save I Capture the Castle for when she’s in the mood for a good medieval siege – but we smile with real fondness, rather than patronisingly or with the urge to pat her on the head.

There’s a plotline in Among Others I would love to discuss with someone – with someone who’s read the book, as unfortunately there isn’t much that can be said about it without spoilers. It has to do with Wim, a boy Mori meets in her sci-fi book club and feels attracted to. I suppose it’s an illustration of the double edge of the belief that Woman as Victim and Man as Sexual Predator is the “natural” way of things. Until the world changes radically, I’ll always believe that women have a lot more to lose in terms of reputation, and that they’re punished much more harshly for what are perceived as sexual misdemeanours than men will ever be. But inequality, power imbalances, and the world’s refusal to believe that girls can also have sexual agency also have their repercussions for boys. It’s a thorny issue, though, and a difficult one to convey well. The way it has been portrayed here can perhaps be read in a way that makes me quite uncomfortable, which is why I’d love to have someone to talk about it with.

I can’t resist finishing this post with a photo of the dedication page of Among Others, which put a big smile on my librarian-in-training face. At a time when the belief that books and libraries are nonessential is becoming frighteningly widespread, this is a very opportune story indeed.

Among Others Dedication

Favourite bits:
I sat on the bench by the willows and at my honey bun and read Triton. There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head. I’d like to write like Delany or Heinlein or Le Guin.

Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. And it doesn’t care about me any more than the Shire cared about Frodo.

They read it too:
Chasing Ray
Stainless Steel Droppings
Bookworm Blues

(Yours?)

And if you have a few moments to spare, Jo Walton’s post for John Scalzi’s Big Idea feature is well worth reading.

39 comments:

Memory said...

The more I hear about this, the more I want it. I'm #3 on the library wait list (yay, libraries!), so I have my fingers crossed they'll process it and send it to me good and soon.

Charlie said...

So many books about books to be found! For some reason I never thought there would be many, and there's just something about reading a book about reading that makes you love it all the more. I love the idea of using the what happens after as the plot. I think this book would fit the reading challenge I want to start.

christina said...

I have to admit I have never heard of this book before. But I am excited now. I will have to wait until April (*looking menacingly at TBR Dare*) but both the 'after the fact' and reliance on books to develop you as a person has me sold.

Vivienne said...

This book keeps catching my radar. It sounds like a beautiful one combining books with fantasy. I love books that involve witch craft so will definitley want to read this one.
Also she is just the Welsh author I need for Wales Appreciation Day.

Clare said...

I'm trying to put together a response more coherent that "Jo Walton, what a dreamboat", but it's not happening. I seriously have to get through this woman's canon.

Jeanne said...

Scalzi put this one on my radar, but you're making me itch to buy it instead of waiting for it to show up at the library!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Here would be a great challenge some day...books about books. So many great ones out there.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Well, obviously I have to read this!

Amy L. Campbell said...

Great review. I'll be adding this to my reading list.

I do have a slight problem with the dedication. Librarians do a lot more than just "sit there" and lend books. I'm sure the author didn't mean it to be degrading, but that's how it comes off as it neglects to recognize our other contributions to reading and information literacy.

For instance, you earlier mentioned how people found out about other books written by authors before the internet, the answer: librarians. And we still do this today as well as recommending other books people might like.

Anyway, didn't mean to go soap box on your blog, but the image of librarians doing nothing but reading all day needs to end. These are professionals who work hard and deserve their titles and salaries.

Amy said...

This sounds absolutely fantastic, I definitely will have to give it a read at some point.

Trisha said...

I like Sandy's idea about a books about books challenge.

I think you are right on when you talk about the intellectually growth of teen girls being rather absent and if not insincere then at least inauthentic. Today teen-growth books seem primarily about sexual awakenings, so it would be interesting to look at an intellectual awakening instead.

Christy said...

This sounds awesome. I've lately been thinking about stories that happen 'after the end', how characters - people - make a life after a great battle.

And ditto to what Trisha said above about the paucity of stories about girls' intellectual growth. In some books, the teen girls have the 'correct' opinions automatically. The authors play it safe, making their heroines uber-savvy.

Zibilee said...

The bookish aspect of this book really appeals to me, and though I am not really all that much of a fantasy reader (at least not yet) there is something compelling to me about the synopsis and review that you posted. I am adding this one to my list because I think it is very different than most of what's out there right now, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and ideas on it with us, Ana.

Nymeth said...

Memory: I hope you'll get it soon! And I hope you'll let me pester you with e-mails about Wim once you have :P

Charlie: Is it about books about books? Because if so, it seems you'll have many takers :P

Christina: It's only just come out, so maybe that's why. I don't usually buy brand new books but in this case I couldn't resist.

Vivienne: Perfect indeed! The Welsh landscape also plays a huge role in the story.

Clare: You and me both!

Jeanne: I couldn't resit buying it myself :P

Sandy: That would be a great challenge :)

Jill: Enjoy!

Amy L: We'll have to agree to disagree! To me it didn't come across as degrading at all - quite the contrary. I've been in library school for long enough to have realised that librarianship is about much more than just books and reading, and that certainly librarians don't sit around being useless all day. But to me the dedication sounded exactly like a shout out to the librarians who work in the area of reader development, who tell readers about other books they might like and in that way touch their lives (there are two librarian characters in the story who have a big impact on Mori's life). In some contexts at least, this area of being a librarian is often portrayed as unimportant or passé, and the dedication was a reminder that it actually matters a lot.

Amy: I think you'd definitely enjoy it :)

Trisha: I'm interested in stories of sexual awakening as well, but there's a place for everything.

Christy: Yes, exactly! I loved that this book didn't.

Zibilee: I think this is definitely a book with cross-genre appeal, so I hope you won't let the fact that it's fantasy put you off :)

Steph said...

I love books about books and books about reading and books that feature protagonists that love books as much as I do. This sounds like a wonderfully rewarding read, and you've definitely piqued my interest. I also loved your passionate discussion of the way fantasy writing taps into an almost unconscious aspect of ourselves!

Vasilly said...

What a wonderful review. Colleen from Chasing Ray was the person who made me realize that I need to read this. For some reason my library doesn't have it yet, so I just bought it last night. I'm hoping to start it this week.

I think some of my favorite books are books about books and reading. It's like finding kindred spirit! :-)

Fence said...

The more I read about this book the more I want to read it.

Must order it as soon as possible.

Debi said...

Okay, you know how I just told you in an email that I curbed my urges to pay big bucks to get this into my greedy little hands and decided to order in online instead...pretty much sorry I did that now. :)

bookmagic said...

This sounds like a great book. What a fabulous, comprehensive review. Mine are so lame by comaprison.
I am going to add this to my tbr list. maybe my library has it, that would be wonderful.

Jeane said...

This title is totally new to me. And wow, it sounds so good. Another one onto the list!

Nymeth said...

Steph: I'd love to write a whole post about that sometime! And I'm with you on protagonists that love books. It's kind of funny that they're sort of rare!

Vasilly: It was Colleen who made me cave and buy it as well. So worth it!

Fence, I hope you'll enjoy it!

Debi: Well, you got it AND saved, so it wasn't a bad decision overall ;)

bookmagic: Aw, thanks for the kind words, but yours are NOT bad at all!

Jeane: It's just come out! This is one of those rare occasions in which I caved and bought a hardcover book :P

Jenny said...

Oh my gosh, I desperately want to read this. It's taking a thousand hours to come in at the library. Jo Walton's having some sort of event in New York in mid-February, and I want to have read this before then. :(

The thing about Prospero doesn't sound that appalling, honestly -- apart from, obviously, the double standard for mothers and fathers. I mean it doesn't sound appalling for her to think that. There's a massive double standard for mothers and fathers, I can easily see having that gut reaction while knowing rationally it was stupid.

(My daddy used to have people stop him when he was grocery shopping with my sisters and me to tell him that he was a fantastic father. Just for grocery shopping with his kids!)

Gypsi said...

Between you and Carl, you've convinced me! I've got it on hold at the library! =D

Iliana said...

I'm so excited I have a copy of this book! Just need to get through with a few others first and then I look forward to diving in!

Cheryl said...

Hmm...all through this post I kept going back and forth on whether I wanted to add this book to my list of books to read...and finally the beauty of that two paragraph excerpt at the end pushed me over. So I added it to the list, to eventually get it from, of course, the library!

By the way, I have to comment that I LOVE that Neil Gaiman quote at the top of the blog! That's going straight into the quote book...

Aubrey said...

I literally just finished reading this 5 minutes ago and it's so brilliant. I kept wanting to quote huge swathes of it to people nearby (Except they were mostly strangers in the library and this would have been garnered some odd looks.)
But I can't resist one little quote: "Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization. Libraries really are wonderful. They're better then bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts."

Nymeth said...

Jenny: I think it was the word "unnatural" that made me go a bit Eek. I'll admit I'm a bit sensitive, though, because I've been called it for not wanting children one time too many :P But I definitely don't think that kind of emotional reaction makes Mori (or anyone!) a horrible human being or anything like that. Like you said, it's very difficult to avoid.

Gypsi: Enjoy!

Iliana: I can't wait to hear what you think!

Cheryl: Isn't it a lovely quote? It perfect sums up my feelings on stories and the role they play in our lives.

Aubrey: Hahaha - I actually read that one out loud to my boyfriend :D

Darren @ Bart's Bookshelf said...

I knew as soon as I saw your tweet the other day, that reading your review was going to be a dangerous act! :P

I so want to read this one now!

Trapunto said...

This is the first time I've heard of this book. Thanks! Jo Walton's authorial presence can be a bit cagey, it's part of what makes her so good, it's also made me very curious to get more of her personal perspective on things. It would be hard not to draw on her own childhood at least a *little bit* while writing about a girl growing up in Wales. I so look forward to reading this!

Teddy Rose said...

Your review has me very intrigued with this book. I added it to my TBR.

Chris said...

Oh wow, this sounds amazing. Just incredible...I may have to go out and buy this one like tomorrow >> It's not available yet on paperback swap :p I did however manage to snag a copy of Case Histories over there!!

Jodie said...

Well this sounds pretty much gorgeous. Just been talking about the father's absent behaiour in The Summer Book and litlove asked how we'd feel if the character had been a woman and I know I'd have noticed it more and thought her behaviour a bit neglectful, rather than a kind of high minded remoteness - which obviously isn't fair. It's something I noticed when reading Shiver. The mother's neglectful behaviour seemed to crop up more, or at least I noticed it more, while the father's seemed less prominent. But then in To the Lighthouse I found the father's remoteness very unacceptable, while his wife's occassional vagueness around her children didn't touch me at all, probably because Woolfe works hard to make her readers switch up the double standard. It's always really odd to see just how deep doube standards can get buried in you.

Gavin said...

Delany or Heinlein or Le Guin? This one has been on my radar for a while, now it's moving to the top of the stack!

Jeanne said...

THANK YOU for causing me to read this book sooner rather than later! I think you have my email (or my FB) if you want to talk about Wim sometime.

Aishwarya said...

Re. the Wim plot, I would also like to discuss it! Are you still looking for someone to talk about it with?

Laurie C said...

Your blog post about Among Others was the one that tipped me over the edge, too, and put it to the top of my list. I posted about it today. It's a difficult one to recommend, because I want to recommend it to everybody, but it's definitely not a one-size-fits-all book, and some readers are not going to like it.
As a librarian, I'm not offended by the Mori's statement that libraries "just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts." People expect libraries to be sitting there whenever we want them, but if we're not careful, they won't be sitting there much longer.

Alexander said...

Afraid I feel the need to rant a bit. To say up front I value and respect the views of people that liked it, and don't grudge anyone pleasure they found in this or other books. Unfortunately I have some criticisms for it, and given what this book is about will involved some comments on use and misuse of fandom appeal. I hope I don't give offense, and will say that a lot of the comments in the book on the power of SF literature--particularly on Delany and Le Guin--I agree with whole-heartedly.

Those comments aren't enough a story, though. In short that's the issue I take with it--that the book is the end barely a novel. Particularly in how weak it is in plot and characterization. Instead what it's involved with is a truly over the top focus on self-referential SF elements, a long listing of reviews and reactions to different speculative fiction texts. What in the end is the point, beyond contributing to the strain of SF that's more and more insular and self-contained? That believes simply having a set of particular tastes makes a story compelling? I'm probably a bit hampered in this by coming to the book after Walton's posts on tor.com, but that also makes it very explicit that these are real-world tastes of the author explored at length through an awkwardly framed story. The elements of darkness and psychological function hinted at early in the story, with a recognition of how bad it would be to actually relate to the whole world only through a scifi lens, don't catalyst effectively. There's nothing really here beyond the not-at-all-subtext that SF is awesome. There are books about science fiction as SF that I find fascinating--Yellow Blue Tibia comes to mind. But that work has something to say, it uses the idea of a meta-narrative to challenge and explore unfamiliar terrain. Among Others is about a meta-narrative as consolation, as a statement of absolute value applied to personal life experiences and the experience of being a fan. The ultimate message is simply: Yay! It's a narcissistic, minimally plotted celebration of a niche mindset as being the essence of humanity.

Ultimately I found the book self-indulgent to an immense fault, and thoroughly lacking in substance. For the gain it offers, I'd suggest just reading Walton's posts on tor--they're generally intersting, amusing and fun. That applied to a novel makes for a very weak experience, in my own humble opinion. Similar issues as with a lot of Stross, Scalzi, Butcher and Doctrow--rather than extrapolating or exploring alternatives to the present some authors are content to write only to and of fandom. And many of these works become very popular in the SFnal community, since isn't it nice to be complimented? I find that rather disheartening.

Among Others doesn't look to anything outside its own little fandom world. There are good things about growing up on SF, on interacting with others around common enthusiasm. Obviously. But that is not and should not be taken as a suitable end it itself, to be as idealized and automatically laudatory as Walton's book asserts.

litlove said...

I've just finished this and thought you had reviewed it, Ana, and just had to come back and check. I thought (re: Wim) that it was interesting, and to me slightly disquieting, that Mori passed from a world of women (her sister, her mother, her aunt) to a world of men (her father, her grandfather, her boyfriend). It isn't signalled as significant and yet it felt so to me, without my being able to say why. Except that it felt as if the men were above the emotional ploys and devices of women (even her new friend Janice is lost without regret at the end). Would love to chat about this book with you as you know so much more about the world it's coming from, too!

Ana @ things mean a lot said...

litlove, that's an angle I hadn't considered and yet now that you mention it it seems significant to me too. And I'd be very happy to discuss the book with you further!