REVIEW – Among Others (2011) By Jo Walton
THE ZONE has my review of Jo Walton’s Among Others, a hybrid novel that pulls together elements of contemporary fantasy, boarding school novel, fan memoir and teen bildungsroman. Already being touted as one of the books of 2011, Among Others is a book I very much admire but do not particularly like.
Despite finding the book quite cold and unlikable, I did find it genuinely thought provoking. Indeed, since I emailed my review, a couple more things have occurred to me about the book…
Firstly,one of the side effects of the decision to give equal weighting to all three facets of the novel is that Mor’s life is oddly compartmentalised. This means that while Mor studies both languages and science and tolerates open relationships because Heinlein tells her to do so, she never thinks to use her knowledge of fantasy to try and make sense of the magic that surrounds her.As a result, the sort of postmodern feedback loop present in works such as Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree (2009) — a loop the allows a knowledge of genre texts to influence the actions and perceptions of the characters — is conspicuously absent from Among Others.
On the one hand, this seems oddly artificial, but on the other hand it seems strangely fitting. Indeed, Among Others is set in a period when the boundaries between the different genres were much more tangible than they are today (for a discussion of the evaporation of genre boundaries see my piece dealing with Gary K. Wolfe’s book on the subject). Throughout the book, Mor talks about fantasy novels in a tone that suggests that she sees them as very much a second order entity when compared to works of science fiction and yet Mor herself is the protagonist of a fantasy novel. One possible interpretation of this disconnect is that, Mor is simply not equipped with the postmodern conceptual tools that allow her either to see her life as a work of fiction or to realise that her life blurs the line between realism and fantasy. Had Mor grown up in the 1990s or the 2010s then her experience of genre might have better equipped her for navigating a decidedly postmodern life but, as a teenager in the 1970s, Mor is forced to see the world in terms of fixed genre boundaries: memoir here, boarding-school novel there and fantasy way the fuck over there in the corner.
Secondly, Among Others is a relentlessly serious and almost po-faced novel that fails to echo either the whimsy of fantasy, the silliness of fandom or the ‘jolly hockey sticks!’ class parody of the boarding school novel. In fact, the work whose tone and setting most closely match that of Among Others is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985) as Mor is not only isolated and alienated but also intensely calculating in her relationships with other people. There are scenes where Mor discusses purchasing buns for other girls on the understanding that this will get them to buy her buns in return that echo with the same sociopathic lack of humanity as the scenes in which Ender ponders murdering or brutalising a bully in order to set an example. Mor’s detachment both from her own emotions and the people around her goes some way to accounting for why I found the book so cold and unaffecting; Mor comes across as not only potentially psychotic but actually psychopathic in her attitudes to other people. Obviously, the book’s careful genre-balancing act proscribes digging into Mor’s motivations and psychological history lest the book resolve itself into a work belonging to the school of psychological realism but I do think that an opportunity was missed to look deep within the darker corners of fandom’s soul. As Wolfe points out in the essay I quote in my review, lots of fan and author memoirs revolve around a ‘…and then I discovered Tolkien’ moment but in order for that moment to have any real power, it must be a solution to a problem. A problem of intellectual alienation, mild autism, social disconnectedness or general weirdness that is common to many geeky childhoods but seldom acknowledged. Yes, Tolkien may have saved many fans but what did he save them from if not growing up to be people like Mor? By making Mor such a profoundly weird and unsympathetic character, I feel that Walton was very close to opening up a can of worms that really could stand to be opened. Geeks pride themselves on their childhood reading capacities but did those years spent reading under the covers really come at so little cost?