2012 World Fantasy Award finalist for Best Novel (2012 Nebula, Hugo winner): Jo Walton, Among Others

October 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Sunday 21st October 1979 

James Tiptree, Jr. is a woman!  Gosh!

I never would have guessed though.  My goodness, Robert Silverberg must have egg all over his face.  But I bet he doesn’t care.  (If I’d written Dying Inside I wouldn’t mind how much of a fool of myself I made about anything ever again.  It might be the most depressing book in the world, I mean it’s right up there with Hardy and Aeschylus, but it’s also just so brilliant.)  Ant the Tiptree stories are good, too, though none of them quite up to “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”  I suppose I can see doing that so as to get respect, but Le Guin didn’t, and she got the respect.  She won the Hugo.  I think in a way Tiptree was taking the easy option.  But think how fond her characters are of misdirection and disguise; maybe she is too?  I suppose all writers use characters as masks, and she was using the male name as another layer.  Come to that, if I was writing “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” I might not want people to know where I lived either.

I was the only person not to get a bun today, not that I care.  Even Deirdre got one from Karen.  Deirdre looks at me in a strange puzzled way, which is actually worse that anything.  I understand Tiberius’ reliance on Sejanus much better now.  I also understand how he became peculiar.  Being left alone ā€“ and I am being left alone ā€“ isn’t quite as much what I want as I thought.  Is this how people become evil?  I don’t want to be.

Is it possible to detest quite a bit of what a fictional work is all about and yet admit that it achieves its aims in such a way that it would be churlish not to acknowledge its triumphs?  Jo Walton’s award-winning novel, Among Others, is the sort of tale that I do not enjoy reading, yet at the same time, it is one of the better examples of the dreaded “SF fan coming of age tale” (with fairies) that I have encountered in recent years.  Perhaps an exploration of these poles of personal perspective and reaction will be a suitable angle for this review essay.

Among Others has the sheen of autobiographical experience; there are too many allusions to past reads and habits for there not to be this sense that Walton has mined some of her own youthful thoughts and experiences for this tale.  The story just has that feeling of “authenticity” about it; perhaps those who did grow up young SF fans in Wales in the late 1970s and early 1980s may have found themselves relating to the tumultuous world in manners similar to the narrator.  After all, why wouldn’t a fan of Tiptree and Le Guin (among others) view the changing world around her in terms similar to those encountered in favorite stories?

Yet, for some (and I admittedly am one) readers, such confessional tales alienate.  There is sometimes the sense that the repeated allusions to SF tales and writers obscure what is transpiring in the narrator’s life, covering up what might otherwise have been an interesting life with the occasionally dull references to books that were read and processed.  There is real pain and heartache to be found in Among Others, but at times the focus on the SF reader Bildungsroman blunts the impact of those scenes, leaving open the possibility that some readers will find the narrator to be a rather dull character when perhaps the opposite would be closer to narrative truth.

Among Others‘ focus on the narrator’s past feels a bit incomplete.  All we witness occurs between 1975-1980 (mostly 1979-1980), when the narrator is between 10 and 15 years old,  during what often is the most “awkward” years of a person’s social life.  Quickly we get the sense of the narrator’s loneliness and her desire to turn inward, toward what she is reading and what she obsesses over, to avoid certain issues in her life; this is stated quite clearly at the beginning of the fictional diary that comprises this novel.  Walton does capture this sense of introspection present in the journal entries.  There is very little about the historical scenes of this time (for Americans, 1979 would have meant the Iranian Hostage Situation; for those in the UK, Thatcher’s ascension to the Prime Minister post); instead, there is a running thread regarding SF and the fairies that the narrator perceives (the reality of which is not revealed until near the novel’s end).

For those who love SF in all its disparate and occasionally warring forms, Among Others will ring true to them.  It is easy to understand how this novel would appeal to those who do enjoy the form; the longing for something different from the surrounding mundane reality; the desire for the fantastical to take shape around them; the wish for a better life than the one currently being lived.  All of these are present within the narrative and they occupy a central part.  But some readers did not have such wishes or desires when growing up.  For myself, reading Among Others was frustrating, because the world view being expressed was so alien to that of my own youth that it was difficult to relate to what was happening or to sympathize with the narrator’s opinions.  It felt wrong, even, which perhaps says as much about the novel’s ability to describe and present a certain worldview as it would be a commentary on perceived deficiencies.

Contrary to what some may presume, stories that spark a sense of “wrongness” are not necessarily poor ones.  Among Others does an outstanding job in portraying a particular type of juvenile reader and her worldview during a certain time.  The prose masterfully captures the essence of this point-of-view and although the issue of fairies perhaps was the least-interesting element for myself, even it is integrated nicely into the narrative.  Despite all of this, however, the more I consider the novel’s themes regarding reflection and on SF genre writing, the less I find to admire about it.  This is not surprising to me nor does it dismay me; personal tastes do play a role in enjoyment.  However, regardless of my personal preferences as a reader and as an adult who lived a childhood far different from the narrator’s, Among Others may be one of the two most accomplished and realized novels on this year’s World Fantasy Award shortlist for Best Novel.  Those who do not share my qualms about its themes will likely enjoy Walton’s prose and the slow unveiling of events that transpire around what was recorded within the entries.  It is a deserving finalist (and winner, in the case of this year’s Nebula and Hugo Awards), but it may be polarizing for those who do not share the narrator’s (and presumably, the author’s) sensibilities.

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