|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Monday, April 04, 2011
The contorted faces that emerged from the wood-grain of the wardrobe door, and the great multicoloured irregular shapes that in the dark drifted through the room like paramecia under a microscope - all of which put in an appearance every bloody night - they seemed real. To me, at that age and a little older, they were real. I thought the drifting shapes, in particular, were a completely objective phenomenon. I remember getting very excited when we were told in school about germs. I thought the things I saw every night were a special kind of germs that were big enough to see.
The fairies in Jo Walton's Among Others (Tor, 2010) are like what the faces and the shapes would have been if they'd been real. From their descriptions in the book, they might be instances of paraedolia. But in this story we know they aren't. They haunt, mainly, industrial ruins. At one point, the fifteen-year-old heroine speculates that they are a sentient manifestation of the interconnectedness of the world, which is just the sort of thing this sort of heroine would think. Among Others is a fantasy about science fiction. It's a story about being fifteen in 1979 and growing up through, among other things, reading science fiction (and talking to fairies). It captures exactly the feeling of growing up in post-war, and then post-industrial, Britain, amid the ruins of giants' work: We thought we were living in a fantasy landscape when actually we were living in a science fictional one. She had me at that sentence. I fell into the book and didn't come out for two days, and I missed it when I'd finished. Mori, the narrator and heroine, uses magic to find her way to science fiction fandom. This use of magic turns out to have been a mistake, but you can see the temptation.
The way that Mori uses science fiction is a kind of magic in itself. In the words of Francis Spufford's The Child that Books Built, a real-life memoir of a male counterpart of Mori:
You can see through the differences and irregularities of cases to the unchanging principle beneath, the bare grid of the idea they have in common, and the exercise of this new power is, of course, pleasurable. It makes the world a giant step more graspable - more yours.There are costs for that grasp. In Walton's book, they are paid. But as anyone who has grown up among others will tell you, it's that or the loss of self, which is the precise threat that Mori has to finally face. At that point the price is worth it. And then you grow up, or don't.
Among Others is about someone who will grow up, by someone who did; a sentient manifestation of the interconnectedness of the world.