I probably don’t have to explain Jo Walton’s singular new novel, Among Others, by now. If I do, in brief, it is the journal and reading diary of a fifteen-year-old girl who, after a series of traumatic events that left her twin sister dead and herself lame, has found a physical refuge in a girl’s boarding school, and a spiritual refuge in books, particularly SF. Which makes it sound mundane, except that Mor speaks to fairies—and not the Disneyfied, sentimentalized version, but the original wild spirits of wood, earth, and stone—works magic, and she and her sister sacrificed themselves to save the world. This is about the aftermath. It’s set in England in 1979-1980, and as someone who fell into SF while a teenager at a girl’s school in Scotland in the 70s, I really looked forward to the evocation of the time and the place.
I got that, and more. One of the unique aspects about the book was how well it portrays a young mind bursting out in all directions. I’d largely forgotten about that experience of intellectual flowering, of being in possession of an adult vocabulary and intellectual capacity, not to mention the toolkit that comes with a decent education, and being let loose with a fistful of library tickets to go romping through the best works of kindred and strange minds. I don’t think I ever found that experience—which has to be one of the best parts of adolescence, up there with the creative experimentation that goes with all those discoveries—portrayed in mainstream fiction—and how I snickered when when I read Mor’s caustic comments on Teen Problem Novels, because that is exactly what I thought, even then [i]. SF was a wonderful liberation from the mandated dreariness of adolescence. (I wonder if the experience gets encoded in SF and fantasy in the form of the emergence of psionic powers or magic . . . a topic for another time.)
The portrait of a character and a mind being formed by reading also made something go click in a way that hadn’t before: Reading is experience, as opposed to being a way of avoiding experience, or an inadequate replacement for it, a cultural assumption that I’d accepted (though not without resistance) for years [ii]. And because Mor absorbs her reading into her experience, on a number of occasions she simply says, “Oh, that”, and carries on, proceeding by the map her reading has laid out. Which in a couple of instances made me wince, and in others, laugh—pity the teenage lout who encounters a girl versed in Heinlein. Well, that was a laugh and wince, in sympathy.
And what about the magic? For myself as an SF/F reader, reading by a SF/F protocol, there’s no doubt: there’s magic. I like the magic, the subtlety of it, the way it merely leans on the possible. Having bounced off the endings of fantasy novels aimed at young readers (Silver on the Tree, The Last Battle), I like Mor’s explanation as to why she thinks that she will do less magic as she matures. Yet the very subtlety of the magic, makes it, as Mor says herself more than once, “deniable”. Mor has the hallmarks of reliability: she’s not a “fanciful” person; she might see fairies and ghosts, sense and work magic, yet she likes chemistry and physics, and would like maths if it would but like her back. She self-consciously challenges the putative reader’s skepticism only once, at the end of the first section of the book, unlike most first person unreliable narrators, who do so repeatedly. She’s prickly—I suspect Mor and (prickly!) fifteen-year-old me might not have got on—and sometimes brusque in her judgements, but deeply grounded and thoughtful, and has moved far beyond a self-centered view of right and wrong. Nevertheless, switch off the SF reader’s protocol, take a quarter turn, and consider the book from that angle, disbelieving in the magic, and the book still works as a study of a young woman’s imaginative response to loss. Which is another unique, and very neat, thing about it.
[i] I decided Teen Problem Novels were a product of cultural reaction against the teenage years of the the baby boom. Twentysomething boomers were embarrassed by adolescence, the rest of the culture was burned out on it, and nobody had anything good to say about it.
[ii] A few years after I discovered SF, I discovered feminism, and Joanna Russ provided me with a workable explanation as to the whole experience issue, which had preoccupied at least two generations of women writers before me (Mansfield, Plath, Russ herself): setting up ‘experience’ as a prerequisite, and certain kinds of experience at that, was another strategy that condemned women writers to insignificance. Worked for me for years, but I like this one better.