Among Others

Among Others by Jo WaltonAmong Others by Jo Walton is the diary of Mori, a girl who reads a lot. It's also a boarding school story, and a fantasy story with magic and fairies, but most of all, it's a story about growing up reading SF and fantasy.

Perhaps I am a perfect reader of this novel. Actually I find it difficult to imagine what it's like to read Among Others if you did not love SF and fantasy as a teenager, and if you never longed for people who would understand the kind of things you cared about.

I have not read all of the books mentioned in this story, far from it, but I know the authors and recognize most of the titles, and that really connects me with her mind. The story would work even without that meta-connection, but so much of the depth comes from the sense of recognition. Mori uses the books to understand and discuss her life and the world.

"It's a granfalloon in the purest sense, and I am enduringly grateful to Vonnegut for giving me the word."

"Robert Heinlein says in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel that the only things woth studying are history, languages and science. Actually, he adds maths, but honestly they left out the mathematical part of my brain."

"It would be like living on Anarres. I'll take that over this any day."

Robert Heinlein, Will Travel xxx  

The year is 1979 and the world is very similar to the one we know. Mori – Morwenna Markova/Phelps – is fifteen years old and on the run from her insane mother after a terrible event that killed her twin sister and left Mori crippled. Social services brings her to a father she doesn't even remember and who lives under the rule of his three rich sisters. The aunts send Mori to the boarding school Arlinghurst, which is just as boring as you can imagine – especially for someone who cannot run.

From a Wales full of industrial ruins populated by fairies, she comes to an over-cultivated England with almost no space for magic. From a big family and lots of friends, she comes to a place where she is in many ways an outsider.

"There are other people like me out there. There is a karass. I know there is, there can be." (Don't worry, all of the science fiction words she uses are explained in the book.)

Slowly, Mori makes herself a new life. She gets to know her father and grandfather, discovers interlibrary loan and finds a book club. She chooses life, and finds out what the proper boundaries for magic are.

I must confess that I often have problems with diary novels. All of my experience with real diaries tell me that you usually write more when your life is boring, and when interesting things happen you don't have time to take notes. Also, you never write about those little things that seem insignificant but turn out to be really important later – when that happens in a fictional diary it completely cuts off my suspension of disbelief.

These problems don't exist here. Jo Walton has perfect explanations for how Mori has time to write so much (and read, for that matter), and even allows for several days to write long entries about important events. I like that.

The book club Mori joins at the town library in Oswestry is described in a way that makes me want to jump into the page and participate. It seems in many ways to be the perfect book club. Everyone has read a lot, and they can have meetings every week. They can discuss an author and various aspects of her work, and expect most of the people present to be able to contribute.

I wonder if that is possible at all, today. The amount of fantastic literature published in the previous decades is just staggering, and the variety of the field is so huge that you have to work hard to get an overview. In a general SF book club chances are that someone reads only hard sf, someone reads only stuff published before 1980, and someone cares for nothing but space opera and romance. You cannot expect everyone to know the same authors.

Still, something similar to the discussions in the Oswestry book club actually happens now and then, especially at science fiction conventions, and I love it. I can certainly relate to Mori's reactions to learning about fandom.

"There's a magazine, a 'fanzine' called Ansible! It's for information about what's going on in the SF fan world, it's funny, and it's so exactly what I would have called it that I love the author, sight unseen without meeting him."

(You all know, I hope, that Ansible still exists and you can read it online.)

Kurt Vonnegut; Cat's Cradle. James Tiptree Jr James Tiptree Jr 

When I put this book down, it was with a feeling that there are so many books I would like to read, or reread. Vonnegut, especially Cat's Cradle. Something, anything, by James Tiptree Jr. (Mori: "I'm so glad that I knew she was a woman in advance, because it would have been an awful shock to have discovered it when everyone starte saying 'she'.") John Brunner. Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence. Some classic Heinlein, definitely. Delany, especially Babel-17 and Triton. Robert Silverberg, stories from his good period about 1969-1974 or so. And that Zenna Henderson, one of the few names I actually didn't recognize (perhaps I should have).

Among Others is more than anything a story that celebrates the love of reading. It's really contagious! I never understood why people are not more interested in talking about what they read.

Susan Cooper; The Dark is Rising Robert Silverberg; Sailing to Byzantium (Five Novellas)    Ingathering: The Complete People Stories by Zenna Henderson