Nesa Sivagnanam's Reviews > Among Others

Among Others by Jo Walton
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Aug 27, 12

Read on August 27, 2012

When you read all the time, you meet many books every single day of your life. After a while the books start resembling people. Some people come into your life for a while and then move along. You might remember them once in a while. You might never give them another thought. Some books, like some people stay to become dear friends. These are the ones to keep going back to. The ones that grow on you and grow with you. Among Others is one of those for me. Admittedly I have a weakness for books about books and this one has science fiction and fantasy books. It's given me a whole new reading list.

I have to thank Brian Ameringen of Procupine Books for waving this at me during an Eastercon in London. He told me then that it would be one of the best books I'd read in the year. He was right.

Anyone who has sought solace in the pages of fantasy and science fiction will immediately identify with the narrator, Morweena Phelps (aka Mori), a smart Welsh teenager banished to boarding school, ostracized from her peers both because of her intelligence and physical impairment, but who finds a safe haven (and a boyfriend) in the meetings of a local library's science fiction book club.

The year is 1979. Mor is the remaining half of a set of twins, can do magic and talks to ‘faeries’. For reasons revealed gradually, she has run away from her mother following a murky incident involving herself, her dead sister, and her mother. Mor runs into the arms of her father, whom she had never met. Soon, she is shipped off by her paternal aunts to boarding school.

Among Others offers a slice of Mor’s life from 1979 to 1980 as she deals with her boarding school, her father and aunts, her attempts to find a like-minded group of people (a karass), and a slow revelation of just how she became disabled, how her sister died, and what her mother has to do with all of it. But really, as broad a story as that sounds, the narrative is not as substantial as you might think. The heart of the book isn’t in that plot, it’s in Mor’s engagement with the science fiction of the day.

The books and texts that Mor reads, inform and infuse the text. And it is here that being familiar with the science fiction that Mor talks about has real value and payoff for the reader.

Mor does like Heinlein and his literary creation, Lazarus Long, quite a bit. There is an uncomfortable, sexually-tinged incident early in the relationship between Mor and her father. Mor speaks directly about Time Enough for Love and the parallels are obvious.

And Samuel Delany’s Triton is a keystone of her reading and has aspects that infuse much of the novel and its characters in regards to themes and the layering of characters and their identities. But what these connections between the books that Mor reads, and the life that she leads, reminds me of is one of Mor’s major attempts at magic, to form a karass, a community of people she engages with. Given the rules of magic in this universe, it’s impossible to say for sure, but its arguable that Mor did not only create her karass, but influenced the entirety of the science fiction field and its population by her act of magic.

At a later point in this novel, Mor even considers this possibility for herself. So, in the universe of this novel, if Mor is right, its possible that the version of me that exists there came to science fiction thanks to Mor’s magic. Shades of Amber and Roger Zelazny!

It's an insider's book not just because of the myriad references to such iconic figures as Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein and, The Lord of the Rings. More importantly, it's the evocation of how you felt as a teenager in first discovering authors whose extraterrestrial or otherwise fantastical settings somehow seem to be speaking directly to your awkward, too-smart-for-your-own-good, virginal kid self. And, moreover, that there are other people like you who feel exactly the same way.

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