Jo Walton, Among Others [Library of Babel]

This is a difficult book to review, which is probably fitting, because it's a very personal book. My reaction to it is largely personal as well, and may or may not be of any use to anyone else. Given the surprising number of people who had Opinions regarding my recollections of telecommunications, I almost think I might be better off not saying anything, but it's going to nag at me unless I write something about it, so what the hell...

So. Among Others is the story of Morwenna "Mori" Markova (previously Phelps), a girl from Wales who sees fairies and whose mother is an evil witch. Literally. After a clash with her mother that left her twin sister dead, Mori ran away, and after due consideration, the state has dumped her with her father, who ran away when she was an infant, and his three creepy half-sisters. They, in turn, have dumped her in an exclusive boarding school for girls, where she is miserable, but takes refuge in, and eventually finds a place for herself because of, her love of science fiction and fantasy literature. And, of course, her mother is still out there using magic to try to get at Mori.

This is doing a number of things at one time: It's a fantasy novel, a boarding school novel, a coming-of-age novel, and a big love letter to SF and SF fandom. It's very well executed in nearly all respects.

Which is, in large part, why it fails for me. It's not that it doesn't work, it's more that it works too well at some of the things that it's doing.

There are really two points where the success of the novel as what it is make it fail to connect with me. The first has to do with the books. It's written in the form of a diary, and the form and voice are spot-on. But part of getting the diary form right is that it doesn't provide much in the way of information about the many books that Mori reads in the course of the novel-- you wouldn't expect a teenager with a lot on her mind to do a detailed plot summary of everything she read, after all.

This is no big deal as long as you recognize the references to authors and titles. But if you don't-- and there are a lot of books mentioned that I know about but either haven't read or do not recall fondly-- a lot of significance is lost. The titles sort of flash by as blank spots in the narrative, a kind of "This Cultural Reference Intentionally Left Blank" effect that ends up being a little off-putting. There are numerous comments that I know would make considerably more sense had I actually read the Samuel Delany novels in question, but all I can do is sort of guess at the outlines from knowing a bit about the books based on other discussions.

(Oddly, while I haven't read much of Delany's stuff, or met him, I am Facebook friends with him. Living in the future is weird.)

It's not a huge issue-- there aren't any major plot points that hinge on unexplained literary references, at least not that I noticed-- but it's a little nagging annoyance that kept coming back at me. Over the course of the book, it took a toll.

The second, bigger problem, also has to do with the quality of the narrative voice, which absolutely nails the disaffected teenage SF fan thing. I can recall feeling some of the same things when I was a not-all-that-happy 7th grader. Sometimes, when Mori talks about her classmates and teachers, I hear a bit of myself at 13.

And that's exactly the problem, because I don't really like myself at 13. I particularly cringe at the parts of my 13-year-old self that most sounded like Mori-- the my-classmates-are-morons, everything-that-isn't-SF-is-rubbish bits. Which is kind of a problem for a novel that is so tightly focussed on one character.

The book is fundamentally about Mori finding herself a place in the world, and even more specifically about finding a way out of a bad place that a lot of adolescent SF fans get into. There's a bit of a bigger plot, though not much of one-- it's a little like Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, in that it's mostly a lovingly detailed description of a particular life moment, with a magical ending that feels kind of rushed. The magic is great-- one of the best parts of the novel-- but really, all the important stuff happened well before the showy magical finale.

The problem is, I found a different way out of my own version of that bad place-- which, I hasten to add, was never all that bad in an objective sense, though it didn't necessarily seem that way at the time-- and it's kinda-sorta mutually exclusive with Mori's way out. She finds a place for herself in the world by finding a group of people who share her interests and attitudes about the rest of the world, where I made my peace with the rest of the world by changing my attitude, and coming around to the opinion that my classmates and the things they cared about weren't really all that stupid after all.

Twenty-mumble years later, I wouldn't really change that. If anything, I'd like to tell my younger self to get over himself a little faster. To the extent that Mori's story feels like a glimpse of a path not taken, then, it's showing a path I don't really regret not taking. Which sort of undercuts the power of the novel.

This is not, by the way, meant to disparage the experience of anybody who found their place in the world via organized SF fandom. That has worked for lots and lots of people, many of them friends. That's not what I did, though (not that it really would've been an option where I was), and I'm pretty happy with my life the way it turned out. It's a little like the college choice thing-- I am fairly certain that had I decided to go to Swarthmore (my second choice) rather than Williams, I would've had a great time there, gotten an excellent education, and made a good life for myself. But it wouldn't be the life I have now, and I like the life that I have now, so I can't exactly say that I regret making the choice that I did back in the day.

So, in the end, because the voice is so well done, it ends up dragging in a lot of weird baggage, which makes the book as a whole not really work for me, even though I recognize that it's doing what it's doing very well. It's not some in-jokey piece of hackwork sucking up to fandom (a sub-sub-genre with entirely too many books in it), but a very well realized novel about a particular experience of adolescence.

There are other quibbles that I have here and there, but they're mostly shadows cast by those two big issues. Which makes it a little hard to end this with any kind of recommendation, because my reaction to the book is sufficiently idiosyncratic that I don't know whether it will do anybody who isn't me any good. I suppose I should just leave it at this: if you read any of the above, and say "Eew, that sounds kind of awful," then you probably don't want to read this. If, on the other hand, reading the above makes you want to leave angry comments telling me how Wrong I am being on the Internet, then you'd probably be better off reading this book instead.

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I finished the book over the weekend, and while I'm probably more sympathetic to the main character than you, the book still didn't quite work for me. It was sort of a case of the sum of the parts being less than the whole; the parts were all well done, but in the end, I was left dissatisfied.

I'm more sympathetic because if you're sufficiently the "other", it can be impossible to find your way in the world by changing your attitude. You're still not going to be accepted. I think that may be especially true if you are female, and don't/won't/can't fit into any of the boxes your family/school/culture wants to put you in.

I've probably read more of the books than you, but really what kept me from having the same literary problem was my habit of reading Walton's book reviews. So I was covered! Also, I have a fond spot for English books with bookworm characters (c.f. Nesbit, Ransome), so I had a better preparation both for the oddities of British life and the book thing.

So I liked the book better than you! Also, I think Mori's world was more constrained than yours -- she was trapped in a sports-mad girls' school, so it probably would have been harder for her to make the adjustment that you did. I think I attributed a lot of stuff to grief over the death of her sister, which Mori only mentions occasionally but really seemed a huge deal to me.

I just finished Dorothy Dunnett's Game of Kings, which is chock full of Latin and French and German and big words that I have to look up, so I spent a lot of the book all grumpy because I felt it had me sitting on the dunce chair while reading. Luckily I stuck with it until I got over myself and enjoyed the swashbuckling.

I think I attributed a lot of stuff to grief over the death of her sister, which Mori only mentions occasionally but really seemed a huge deal to me.

By altın çilek (not verified) on 02 Feb 2011 #permalink

I haven't read this book and I don't know if I'm going to. It sounds to me like I'd find the reading intensely painful and I don't know if I can do that just now. (Nobody in my family has tried to kill, but there's been a fair amount of psychological abuse and well, I grew up a liberal in 1950s & 1960s Oklahoma.) I just don't know.


Very nice review, and good to see some negative commentary on this book. I recently finished reading it after seeing a host of positive reviews, and rather despised it by the end. The whole thing seems far too insular, too self-congratulatory, too much of an excuse for Walton to recycle posts (the views on Heinlein and Dick, especially, are almost exactly the same) and providing nothing in the way of substance to offset that. It just seems to be more posturing on how SF is the best, without real complexity. Or a plot.