The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, April 04, 2011

The witch-child that books built: Jo Walton's Among Others

The only fairies I ever saw were quite conventional. They had cheeky faces, pointy ears, small conical caps, and they played leapfrog on the ceiling. I was eight at the time, and unwell, and I had a high temperature. I knew I was seeing something that wasn't there. The fairies didn't frighten me. They didn't seem real.

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.

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I used to vaguely fancy myself as a fiction writer in a coulda-been-a-contender sort of way (basically I had a few short stories published and then gave up), but this review makes me feel hopelessly outclassed. I don't so much feel that it's the kind of thing I would like to have written, as that it's influenced by (and several steps beyond) the kind of thing I would like to have written. Sounds wonderful, IOW.

Did you ever identify your luminiferous entities?

When I wrote The Star Fraction I didn't have a single short story published, and no non-fiction, so you're farther along the curve than you may think. As for being hopelessly outclassed, aren't we all?

But yeah, the book is wonderful.

(A novel you might like to read is Nightingale, by Peter Dorward, which I blogged about here.)

The luminiferous entities are the random coloured blobs/blocks you can see in darkness (though, come to think of it, the random stuff I see now looks nothing like how I remember them.)

"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."

Me too. I rarely read new fiction, and almost never buy a novel on the back of a review, but I'm rushing out to buy this one. Great review. Thanks Ken!

I read Nightingale two years ago, while my book was in proof, and had a full-on anxiety attack, at 1 a.m. in a London hotel room, about the possibility that Dorward's fictional Red Brigades splinter group was based on a real group that I'd missed. ("I'll have to do more research. I'll have to stop them publishing. I'll have to delete my copy of the proofs to make sure nobody else can read it. I'll have to go home right now...") So I guess I wasn't the ideal reader. (All better now. My book isn't even about the armed struggle groups to any large extent.)

If you're still in touch with Peter D., I'd love to ask him about it.

Done, Phil - assuming I have valid email addresses for both of you.

I bought Amng Others on your recommendation and have just read it in, effectively, a single sitting. A lovely book filled with the delicious ambiguities of adolescence.

That's good to know.

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