Among Others

Jo Walton’s Among Others is an itch that won’t stay scratched since I finished reading it a couple of days ago. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for some kinds of books, though I’m not sure I can define “some kinds” in any useful way, but I knows ’em when I feels ’em, and Among Others is definitely In The Club. Like friendship, In The Clubness isn’t necessarily transitive (i.e., you might or might not share my enthusiasms), but this book is worth the effort of trying to unpack what it is that I so enjoyed.

For one thing, it’s about books and reading. Indeed, it’s virtually a catalog of (mostly) 1970s scifi, with a few books that aren’t scifi at all, and some that are on the fantasy edge of scifi. The narrator (Morwenna Phelps Markova –it’s her journal that we read, covering Wednesday 5th September 1979 to Wednesday 20th February 1980) comments upon 128 books, many of which she reads during that less-than-6-months period [view list].

Most of the action takes place at a girls’ school in Shropshire, where Morwenna is in the Lower Fifth Form… already this is starting to sound preposterous, but hang on… Morwenna’s mother is a malign witch, implicated in the death of Morwenna’s twin sister Morganna. Magic is done, and not-done too. There are fairies, well beings who aren’t exactly fairies or elves or anything else you’ve ever met or perhaps even imagined… and there’s coming-of-age stuff, and dysfunctional family stuff, and bits of detail on Welsh topography and industrial history, and British boarding school mise en scène that makes Hogwarts seem particularly saccharine and vapid.

…but what the book is really about, it seems to me, is self-education via omnivorous reading and talking about reading and writing about reading, and it’s easy to accept that an especially bright 15-year-old could be as articulate as Morwenna is. The 1979-1980 time frame puts it outside the era in which personal computation steamrollered dead-tree media, and that’s worth thinking about in itself. It’s easy to forget that reading scifi was a major mode of geekery before video games and D&D arrived on the scene, and it’s interesting to consider what somebody who had in fact read all those books would know, and what view such a reader would have developed of humanity, of science, of the range of possibilities of social and cultural organization and of alternative possibilities. I think I’ve read about a quarter of the list, though I’m pretty hazy about some of the titles. Clearly Jo Walton has read them, and been intelligent aboout [ooooh Canadian spelling? or typo? you decide…] systematizing her evaluations as experienced via Morwenna.

I’ve harvested several reviews by bloggers, and picked out sentences that might encourage you to read the whole review:

…There were parts of the book which seemed so realistically personal that I felt awkward reading the passages…

we follow Mor, aged 15, as she voraciously read sf just as we did, and it gives her bursts of insight just as it did us. The sf she is reading is part of who she is, and who she is becoming, and it is so real it hurts.

…It is one of those books that you will read and find yourself wanting to underline passage after passage because of the way they speak to you…

…Not only is Among Others one of the most deep and thoughtful novels I’ve ever read, it was crafted in such a beautiful way that I will be thinking about it for a very long time…

…such a completely candid account of a teen girl’s intellectual growth. It’s rare to find a book that captures this process so well, probably due to our tendency to edit our memories as we grow and change and to attempt to harmonise them with the person we later became.

I have more to say, but haven’t quite figured how to cast it. Maybe I will once I see this in print…

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