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Among Others
Jo Walton
Tor hardcover $24.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

A tendency to self-mythologise is inherent in the human condition. As tragically fleeting as they may be, our lives are far too complex and detailed for us to ever grapple with them in their entirety. There are far too many breakfasts, far too many road crossings and far too many broken hearts for all the details of our lives to carry equal weight when it comes to constructing our senses of self. This means that, when it comes time for us to work out who we really are, we tend to sort the various experiences that make up our lives into differently weighted categories depending upon how we see ourselves at that given time.

While we like to make up stories about ourselves but we also like our stories to flow neatly and to contain moments of high drama in which scales fall from our eyes and new paths carve their way through the landscape before us. There is considerable comfort to be found in imagining oneself to be the lovable antihero of an inspirational drama. These kinds of inspirational creation myth may well be central to our sense of self but deep down we know them to be lies. We know that the stories we tell about ourselves are nothing more than consolatory fictions and, because we know this, we know that our sense of self is fragile.

Jo Walton's latest novel Among Others explores that fragility using fantastical elements to interrogate a semi-autobiographical account of a teenaged girl's attempts to come to terms with both the family relationships that dominated her past and the 'family' relationships that will made up her future.

The book begins with a set of twins standing before a Welsh factory. The landscape surrounding the factory is an environmental catastrophe and the girls have been charged with destroying the factory by the local fairies. When they drop their flowers into the dead water near the factory nothing happens and yet, days later, they learn that the factory is to be shut with the loss of thousands of jobs. This, we are told, is how magic works; it does not behave as we might expect and the line between cause and effect is a lot harder to follow than it is in the world of science and mechanics. But if this is true then how are we to distinguish between the genuinely fantastical and the fortuitously mundane? If we knew that then it would be a lot easier to make sense of Among Others.

Think of this as a memoir. Think of it as one of those memoirs that's later discredited to everyone's horror because the writer lied and is revealed to be a different colour, gender, class and creed from the way they'd made everybody think. I have the opposite problem. I have to keep fighting to stop making myself sound more normal. Fiction's nice. Fiction lets you select and simplify. This isn't a nice story, and this isn't an easy story. But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story. It's not like you'd believe it anyway. - page 16

Between the prologue and the opening editorial remarks, Among Others has thoroughly muddied the waters as to what is and is not real. First magic and fairies are introduced and then they are revealed to work in a way that makes them indistinguishable from fortuitous circumstance. Then the book introduces the possibility of an unreliable narrator but the narrator suggests that, if anything, she has departed from reality not by introducing fairies and magic but by actively toning down the fantastical elements of the story. In the space of four pages, Among Others has raised the possibility of not one but two completely incompatible ways of reading the text. This muddying of the waters is central to the experience of the novel; Among Others resists reductionist interpretation. Like our lives, it both abhors and craves simplicity.

Mor is one of the little girls who dropped their flowers in the pool outside of the factory. Several months have passed since the events at the factory and Mor now finds herself without her twin sister and suddenly reliant upon the family of her estranged father. Initially hostile to the new people but aware that - since falling out with her mother - she has no place to go, Mor gingerly bonds with her father over a shared love of genre fiction before getting herself packed off to an English boarding school where she is bullied for being Welsh, for having a foreign name and for walking with a cane. Understandably, the bookish Mor reacts to this hostile environment by seeking solace in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy.

Among Others is structured as a series of journal entries and, as time passes and different events take place, the entries reflect shifts in Mor's attention. Indeed, at some points, Mor's magical battle with her mother and communication with the fairies will seem incredibly important and central to the plot but then something will happen and all talk of magic will disappear from the journal entries only to be replaced by detailed descriptions of Mor's interactions with her newly-acquired family and school friends before peeling off and devoting a series of entries to Mor's reading habits and her attempts at finding a place in the local fan community. What makes Among Others such a peculiar read is that Walton refuses to choose between the different elements of Mor's story meaning that there is never a point at which one element emerges to dominate the novel's foreground while forcing the other elements into the background as either subtext or subplot.

As the journal hops between different Mor's various areas of interest, it drags the novel from one genre to another: first we are in contemporary fantasy, then we are in teenaged coming-of-age story and then we find ourselves in a fan memoir but because the novel never quite gets round to placing the different elements of the plot in any order of importance, the novel never quite settles down into a particular genre meaning that we are forever asking ourselves whether the fairies are real or whether Mor is in fact psychotic.

"I won't see any more elves or whatever today?" I couldn't understand why he couldn't see them now. "Look carefully by the puddle," I said. He turned his head slowly again and saw, I think, one of the gnarled gnome-like ugly fairies that isn't human at all except for the eyes. He blinked. "Did you see it?" I asked. "I think so," he said. "I saw its reflection. If it's there and you can see it, why can't I see it? I believe you, I really do. I saw the other one." - page 254

This scene in which Mor introduces the fairies to her new boyfriend Wim is an absolute masterclass in ontological uncertainty. From the very moment he is introduced, Wim is a character filled with ontological tension. On the one hand, Mor describes him as being impossibly beautiful, impossibly intelligent and endlessly knowledgeable about all things genre (he even went to the 1979 Brighton Worldcon!) but, on the other hand, Mor's fellow fans frequently describe him as being something of a duplicitous letch who happily seduces other fans' girlfriends before dumping them and walking away unscathed from the social fallout.

The tension within the character of Wim resonates with the ontological uncertainty regarding the fairies as the above scene can be taken as both a vindication of Mor's belief in fairies (because Wim claims to see them) and as proof that Mor is utterly deluded (because Wim will say anything to get into someone's pants). The ontological uncertainty regarding Mor's fairies radiates throughout the novel until it touches upon almost every character and plot element. For example, is Mor really under magical attack by her mother? Did Mor really have an identically named identical twin? Was Mor being hysterical when she reacted to the suggestion that she get her ears pierced by freaking out? Did Gill really make a pass at Mor or did Mor simply imagine it? A vast question mark hangs above nearly every aspect of this novel.

In the essay 'The Lives Of Fantasists' taken from his recent collection Evaporating Genres (2011), Gary K. Wolfe observes that, upon reading biographical essays by genre authors:

One is initially struck by the relative thinness and lack of genuine introspection of many of the essays. Typically, such pieces read as a variety of Augustinian conversion tales, depicting a precocious childhood, often solitary and bookish, sometimes sickly, sometimes featuring battles with parents to get into the adult sections of the library, and characteristically leading to a moment of revelation. - page 141

While we may be spared Mor's '..and then I discovered Tolkien' moment, Among Others is a work that is undeniably in conversation with the long and artistically dubious history of autobiographies by both genre authors and fans. Indeed, despite originally appearing (in a slightly different form) in a 2006 issue of the British Science Fiction Association's critical journal Vector, the above quote could have been lifted directly from a review of this book, as Walton's novel draws upon her own experiences of fandom and echoes with the same images of precocious bookishness and sickly isolated childhoods as Wolfe's collections of biographical essays. But if Among Others is about Walton herself then how autobiographical is it and what do the fantastical elements actually bring to the table?

As Wolfe's essay goes on to mention, different genre authors have attempted to address elements of their lives in a number of different ways. For example, Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly (1977) follows in the tradition of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine (1957) by using genre tropes and techniques to communicate the less mundane aspects of his own life experience. For example, in Dandelion Wine, Bradbury uses an element of the fantastic to tinge the world with the sense of wonder and possibility that was apparent when he was a child. Similarly, Dick uses Substance D and the New Path treatment centres as stand-ins for Dick's use of amphetamines and the time he spent in the X-Kalay treatment programme. Dick's use of genre elements to communicate aspects of his own life as a drug-user proved so successful that it inspired Rudy Rucker to produce the 'transrealist manifesto' in which Rucker claims:

Any literature which is not about actual reality is weak and enervated. But the genre of straight realism is all burnt out. Who needs more straight novels? The tools of fantasy and SF offer a means to thicken and intensify realistic fiction. By using fantastic devices it is actually possible to manipulate subtext. The familiar tools of SF - time travel, antigravity, alternate worlds, telepathy, etc. - are in fact symbolic of archetypal modes of perception.

It is tempting to class Among Others as another work in the tradition of Dandelion Wine and the transrealist manifesto. After all, here is a novel that draws upon Walton's experiences as a young fan only to depart from the strictly autobiographical through the introduction of fantasy elements. However, transrealism involves using genre elements as extended metaphors and it is not at all clear that Mor's fairies are representative of anything other than themselves. In fact, I believe that Among Others is attempting something far more ambitious than anything suggested in the transrealist manifesto.

Among Others is an extremely slippery work of fiction. It slips between genres at the turn of the page and systematically denies us the consolation of predictable genre narrative resolution. While the book ends happily with Mor deciding to head off to Eastercon, the issue of whether or not the fairies are real is never really addressed, nor is the issue of Mor's relationship with either her mother or any of her other relatives or friends. If we try to read the book as a straight work of fantasy then we are frustrated by the lack of world-building evident in Mor's descriptions of either the magic system or the fairies themselves.

Alternately, if we try to read the book either as a personal memoir or a work of social realism set in a 1970s' boarding school then we are similarly struck by how thinly drawn Mor is as a character as well as by her minimal self-awareness and her complete lack of interest in the people that surround her. Indeed, Mor comes across as a profoundly incurious person who seems content to react to the world without ever really trying to make sense of it. For example, despite being a fantasy fan and so no stranger to the clomping foot of nerdism, Mor never tries to make sense of the fairies or the magic that she practices.

Similarly, Mor's friends move in and out of her life and change their attitudes to Mor in sometimes quite drastic ways without Mor ever either explaining why or attempting to work out how she can move from bonding with a girl one day to calling her names and bullying her the next. The same is also true of Mor's family who are summarily diagnosed as either magical and evil or mundane and good upon first being encountered only for Mor to never revise her opinions of them regardless of how they act towards her. Mor's profound lack of curiosity about herself, her world and the people around her is a function of the slippery character of the novel.

Had Walton allowed either the magic, Mor or the secondary characters to gain any more substance then it would have been far harder for them to remain suspended between genres. In other words, had Walton written in any more detail about Mor's experiences with fandom then the temptation would have been greater to read Among Others as a memoir with fantastical elements and, had Walton written any more about Mor's magical dabblings, then the temptation would have been greater to read Among Others as a work of fantasy with autobiographical elements. By refusing the various elements of the novel the opportunity to put down roots, Walton maintains the novel's slippery character and keeps Among Others suspended between genres.

By remaining suspended between genres, Among Others is making a point about the tension between the dull but complex reality of our lives and our inexhaustible desire for our lives to make sense and to fit into neat narrative patterns. Among Others refuses to resolve into one genre or another because our lives never quite fit into a familiar pattern. Life is too complex to be comfortably predictable. This denial of resolution is reminiscent of the works of Austrian film director Michael Haneke and just as problematic.

In films such as Funny Games (1997), Time Of The Wolf (2003), Hidden (2005), and The White Ribbon (2009), Haneke engages with a number of genre tropes and themes - ranging from the Victorian ghost story in Hidden, to the post-apocalyptic in Time Of The Wolf, and the slasher movie in Funny Games. However, aside from separating the genre tropes from many of their traditional visual accompaniments, Haneke also steadfastly refuses his audience the consolation that comes from having a story unfold in the manner in which you expect.

For example, in Funny Games, Haneke has the family escape from the murderer and turn the tables on him only for the murderer to turn to the camera, smirk, and press the rewind button on the remote control allowing him to pre-empt the family's escape attempt. Similarly, in Hidden, a series of impossible events take place that appear to be manifestations of some long-hidden family trauma but while the protagonist pulls himself apart re-examining his past and opening up old wounds, the film never completely accepts that there is any real link between the secret trauma and the quasi-fantastical events.

First encounters with the work of Haneke tend to be intensely frustrating and many people continue to react badly to the feeling that they are being hectored by a director who wishes to punish us for our fondness for the consolations of genre narratives and Among Others' refusal to resolve into one genre or another elicited from me a similarly visceral reaction.

There is something intensely frustrating about a work that suggests it might be a number of things whilst also refusing to actually be any of those things. This type of authorial cleverness tends to result in people making the tired point that by trying to be a work of fantasy and a memoir and a realistic coming-of-age story, Among Others only manages to fall between all three stools and fail to satisfy on any level. However, as with the work of Haneke, such accusations miss the point entirely as the sense of frustration and the slipperiness of the work are part of both the intended effect and what makes the work so interesting in the first place.

With its clever inter-textual meandering between the fantasy, memoir and boarding school novel genres, and its pervasive and yet ontologically uncertain magical realism, Among Others is a novel that is quite happily classifiable as a part of the mainstream of postmodern literature. Its graceful movement between genres is a comment upon both our fondness for crude self-mythologisation and the increasing destabilisation of the science fiction and fantasy genres. However, like many works of postmodern fiction, Among Others is more admirable than it is likeable and while the book is undeniably elegant, clever and beautifully conceived it is also impossible to engage with on an emotional level.

Indeed, reading Among Others, I was struck by the importance of irony and playfulness to the work of such postmodern greats as Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut. Even a popular filmmaker such as Shane Black realised in the writing of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) that the slipperiness demanded of the postmodern text militates against emotional engagement with the characters and the plots and so, in order to forge a bond with the reader, many postmodern writers use whimsy and humour to bridge the gap. It is profoundly regrettable that Walton decided to render her childhood as an austerely radiant but ultimately forbidding city on a hill rather than transforming it into the welcoming and enjoyable postmodern playground it so easily could have become.

Among Others by Jo Walton

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