It's been a busy month; too busy for blogging. Normal(ish) service will resume next week, all being well, but until then, here's a reprinted review, which I originally wrote for SFX magazine a couple of months back, of Jo Walton's multi-award-winning Among Others.
In 1967, French literary critic Roland Barthes – we realise this sounds like the most pretentious way to start a review ever, but do bear with us – wrote an essay entitled ‘Death of the Author’. In it, he argued that what a story is ‘about’ is determined by its audience, not its author. Books can have as many meanings as they do readers, because everyone brings different experiences and ideas to what they read, and so sees different things in the text. Put another way, one person’s science fiction really is another person’s thriller that just happens to be set in the future and involve people shooting each other with ray-guns. (Maybe all those TV producers trying to avoid the dreaded label of genre for their expensive new shows are half-right, after all.)
More than most books that get reviewed in these pages, Jo Walton’s ninth novel fits this bill. First published in the US in 2010 – finally making it to these shores late last year in hardback, and now, a few months later, in paperback – Among Others has been garlanded with awards. SF fans and professionals alike have given it their top honours: it got the Hugo from members of the annual World Science Fiction Convention, and the Nebula from the Science Fiction Writers of America. Yet it’s been praised – and criticised – for all sorts of contrasting reasons, as if everyone’s been reading subtly different versions of the book.
It’s charmed many as a love song to reading – in particular, to that immersive, all-consuming, book-a-day reading many of us did as children. Anyone who ever heard an exasperated parent tell them to Put That Book Down And Go Play Outside will be able to relate to 15-year-old Morwenna’s journeys of delight and discovery through the pages of Le Guin, Delany, McCaffrey and Tiptree. So too will anyone for whom reading was a form of escape from more difficult relationships with their family; “I can bear anything as long as there are books”, says Morwenna, who narrates the novel via a diary she keeps after running away from home.
For other readers, this is the story of an awkward teenager finally finding people she has stuff in common with, namely SF fandom. Just as Morwenna is beginning to despair that she will never fit in as the new kid at a posh English boarding school far from the Welsh valleys where she grew up, she’s invited to join a book group at the town library. Suddenly she’s blossoming: holding forth about her favourite books among fellow readers who take her views seriously, being introduced to Dave Langford’s Ansible fanzine, and learning about these wondrous events called ‘conventions’ where people get together to talk about SF for days at a time. Ace!
But Among Others tells other types of stories, too. It’s a coming-of-age tale that is refreshingly frank about the fact that it isn’t only teenage boys who get horny (although in the process strongly suggesting that taking Robert Heinlein as your role model on sex is perhaps a touch unwise); it’s also a fantasy, in which a girl talks to fairies, brings down a polluting factory with magic, and has an evil witch for a mother.
It’s in the latter area that it’s at its least satisfying: the fairies are interesting but their role in the story is cursory, the villain is barely even a character sketch, and the climactic magical showdown falls flat. Yet Walton leaves things open enough that it’s possible to see the ‘magic’ as the product of an over-heated teen imagination, and a harmful one at that. (We only see Morwenna’s side of things: how evil is her mother?) It seems an odd thing to suggest in an SFX review, but the fantasy elements work best seen as metaphors for the troubled past she’s trying to leave behind.