Monday, May 16, 2011

"Among Others" by Jo Walton

Among Others is a remarkable book aimed squarely at classic science fiction fans like me. Oddly, it's a fantasy itself. But then, science fiction and fantasy have always been inextricably mixed.

The protagonist is a 15-year-old crippled girl, who's run away from her evil witch of a mother and ends up attending an English boarding school. Books, especially science fiction, are her love and her refuge, and since the story is set in 1979, they tend to be the classics I, too, know and love.

And she sees fairies. She works magic. I don't know. Often, while reading this book, I wished that Jo Walton had skipped the fantasy part of it. It's not that the fantasy isn't interesting. It's just that I enjoyed the rest of it so much that I guess I resented being reminded that it's just fiction.

Walton clearly loves the same books I do. I've read most of the books her character mentions (although some of them are a bit vague in my mind after all these years), and I recognized most of the rest. In a few cases, I didn't recognize the title or the author, and I wanted to stop right there and try to find a copy.

Mori, her character, even dislikes the same books I do, more or less. But she loves the genre. As she writes in her diary, "One of the things I've always liked about science fiction is the way it makes you think about things, and look at things from angles you'd never have thought about before." Exactly!

The book is written as diary entries, beginning - after a brief prologue - the day before her arrival at a posh boarding school. Through these entries, we slowly learn of what's happened in the past, as well as what's going on in her life. And there are all sorts of digressions, mostly about books or that connect what she's read to her current circumstance:
I would have made much greater sacrifices. I was prepared to die, and Mor did die. I should think of it as a war-wound, an old soldier's scars. Frodo lost a finger, and all his own possibility of happiness. Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn't supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. And it doesn't care about me any more than the Shire cared about Frodo. But that doesn't matter.

The early part of the book is wonderful. I actually wanted to read it slowly, to think about everything and to savor the experience. Then, about half-way through the book, Mori joins a science fiction reading group, and her interaction with other SF fans really speaks to me, too. I belong to the Classic Science Fiction group online, and it's really the same way. I've never met any of the members face to face, but we love the same kinds of things. And we get into huge discussions about books, with many different opinions, but everyone expects disagreement, even welcomes it.

Book-lovers understand that not everyone likes the same thing. Tastes differ. And when it comes to fiction, it's all subjective. Everyone's opinion is just as valid as anyone else's. But we all share that love for reading, and in particular, that love for science fiction. Mori discovers the same thing in her karass.

Later in the book, I thought the story dragged just a bit. I can't complain too much about that, and indeed, I was quite satisfied with the ending. The fantasy part, too, worked out well. I still wonder if it would have worked better as science fiction itself or, indeed, just as an experience in the real world. But that's nitpicking, it really is.

If you love to read, and especially if you love to read classic science fiction, this book is probably for you. I've read other books that celebrate reading, like Silverlock by John Myers Myers, but this one really hit the perfect target with me. Maybe that won't be the case with you, but maybe it will.

Here's another sample:
     "It would be money down the drain. I just can't do it. It would be like teaching a horse to sing."
     "Do you know the story about that?" he asked, turning his head, and incidentally blowing smoke at me, yuck.
     "Don't kill me, give me a year, and I'll teach your horse to sing. Anything might happen in a year, the king might die, I might die, or the horse might learn to sing." I summarised. It's in The Mote in God's Eye, which is probably why it was in his mind.
     "It's a story about procrastination," Daniel said, as if he was the world's expert in procrastination.
     "It's a story about hope," I said. "We don't know what happened at the end of the year."
     "If the horse had learned to sing, we'd know."
     "It might have become the origin of the Centaur legend. It might have gone to Narnia, taking the man with it. It might have become the ancestor of Caligula's horse Incitatus who he made a senator. There might have been a whole tribe of singing horses and Incitatus was their bid for equality, only it all went wrong."
     Daniel gave me a very strange look, and I wished I'd saved this for people who would appreciate it.

If you appreciated that, you might appreciate this book, too. I did.

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