I’m about halfway through Jo Walton’s Among Others, a fantasy novel set in Britain in 1979, featuring an unhappy teenage girl who finds relief in reading science fiction and fantasy, and becoming involved with SF fandom. It’s getting rave reviews from a lot of the usual sources, and the concept sounded interesting, so I grabbed it right after it came out.
It’s an easy read in a lot of ways, but also an odd one. In particular, I keep having trouble remembering when it’s set. Despite the frequent reminders that it’s set in an era I lived through (it’s written as a diary, and every entry includes the full date), it feels like it’s set about a generation earlier. Some of this is just the idiosyncracies of this particular book, but I’ve hit this effect before with British books of that time. A big part of the effect is the way the characters interact with technology. Or, rather, the way they don’t.
It’s striking to me that, halfway through the book, there have been numerous communications between the narrator and her distant family, and they have been entirely in the form of letters. I think there are a couple of mentions of secondary characters using telephones offstage, but I don’t believe the main character has used a phone. And nobody in the book appears to watch or even own a television.
The other books where I’ve gotten this most strongly are Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, which have the same odd telephobia. When I originally read them as a kid, I just assumed they were set in the 1950’s or so, because that’s the vibe I got. It wasn’t until re-reading them that I realized they were supposed to be contemporary with their publication in the early 1970’s, but it’s hard to remember that when reading them. In fact, it was a reference to these books that made me recognize the odd vibe I’d been getting from Among Others.
I remember having this reaction to some other British books set in the 1970’s or 80’s, as well, and thinking of that the last time I re-read the Cooper novels, but of course I can’t think of the names now. It also sort of fits with the British tv I used to intermittently see– Doctor Who of the Tom Baker era is, I think, supposed to be contemporaneous with its filming in the late 70’s, but it always felt more like a product of the Adam West Batman era. This was partly a matter of the laughably bad special effects, but everything just seemed clunkier and more low-tech than the stuff I saw on domestic tv. And of course, it makes perfect sense that the Doctor would disguise his time machine as a phone booth, because nobody in the UK seems to use the damn things.
I’m not speaking from a childhood spent on the bleeding edge of technology and culture, either– I grew up in a small town out in the sticks. I’m fairly consistently surprised when I look up the dates of pop albums and other pop-culture trends, because most of them came out a good six months before the era I associate with them, because that’s how long it took for stuff to make it out our way. My cousins from Long Island always regarded us as hopeless rubes, I think, because whatever trend was au courant in Broome County was ancient history in Nassau County.
It’s a particularly odd feeling, though, for a book that is so rooted in culture to feel so unmoored in time. I suspect this would not be a problem if I were ten years older– while I was alive during the era in question, I was roughly half the age of the narrator, and thus not quite ready to be reading John Brunner and Roger Zelazny. Were I older, I could probably anchor the narrative a little more securely through the books that she mentions eagerly waiting for, but as it was several years later before I read any of that stuff, they’re all in the vague “published sometime before 1983” category. To the extent that I associate any of them with a particular time period, they’re linked to whenever I finally read them–high school or college, mostly.
Of course, there’s also the pop-cultural elephant absent from the room, namely Star Wars. It’s a book about SF fans in 1979, and it takes more than 100 pages before anyone mentions it at all, then it’s raised and dismissed in about three paragraphs, which seems completely bizarre to me. It was a good two decades before I would encounter organized SF fandom, but what consciousness I had of the genre was completely dominated by Star Wars— the movies, toys, trading cards, etc. I’m fairly certain I saw the infamous holiday special when it aired, for example, and while it didn’t come out for about six months after the book is set, the first clear memory I have of detailed conversations about science fiction involve passionate debates about whether Darth Vader could really have been Luke’s father, in the summer of 1980.
(That’s largely a Jo thing, rather than a British thing, I suspect. She’s never seemed to be a big fan of movies. And she’d probably be utterly horrified to hear that my other big SF media associations circa 1980 involve Rankin-Bass animated versions of Tolkien.)
This isn’t meant as an attempt to run down the poor benighted British with their low technology and lack of media, though I fear it probably comes off that way (which would be a reversal of the usual situation– Jo has a way of making comments about the US from a UK perspective that really gets my back up, for reasons I can’t quite articulate). It’s just something that was bugging me for a few nights of reading, and once I figured out what was going on, it wouldn’t go away until I typed this out. So I’m just throwing it out there, make of it what you will. This also isn’t intended as a complete review of the book– I’ll have more to say about it after I finish it, I suspect.
(I should note that, sometime in the 90’s, the British-stuff-seems-old effect went away. I’m not sure exactly when, but more contemporary things don’t have the same problem. I’m not sure if this is a cell phone thing, or a matter of reading more adult books (books aimed at kids often seem to belong more to the era of the author’s childhood than their publication date, which makes them inherently dated), but that’s probably a topic for another time.)