Friday, August 9, 2013

Among Others by Jo Walton

Morwenna likes to drink water.  Her favorite thing in the world is inter-library loan.  She doesn't like tea, orange juice, and certainly not champagne.  She doesn't like people and prefers the company of fairies and science fiction--both of which seem to be a rather exclusive, if not an esoteric, pursuit.  While there is nothing wrong with these personality traits, I share a few, neither are they interesting enough to justify writing a book about.  After reading Among Others I feel certain Morwenna wouldn't like apple juice, cool-aid, or Armagnac.  Morwenna likes to drink water.  She is willfully the most boring person alive.

But she doesn't have to be.

Walton chose to write a book about science fiction.  She discusses other books and authors in the genre up until 1980.  There is nothing wrong with such a book, and I think it would be welcomed among that community of readers, but why she chose to do so under the guise of fiction is beyond me.  More so than the book discussion--which was genuinely interesting from time to time--is the fact that Walton chose to write a novel out of what should have been a readers guide to SF with absolutely no conflict or tension to speak of.  It's not that the conflict is subtle or heavily cloaked: it ain't there.  This absence of conflict is exacerbated by lovely prose about trite day-to-day occurrences and vague hints in directions of interest that are never developed or explored.

Morwenna can see fairies, but please, don't expect a story out of that.  She was involved in an accident that killed her twin sister, at which point Morweena assumed her sister's name, and she has been left with a ruined leg and a cane; but for some reason we don't need to make a story out of that either.  After meeting her father and feeling indifferent she brushes off a drunken incident where he tries to force himself on her, but let's not introduce anything that could be misconstrued as an interesting launching point at this time in the story.  The accident that claimed her sister and leg was brought on by her allegedly mad mother, who is a witch, but surely that wouldn't be fun to talk about either.

After running away from her crazy mother, she goes to stay with her estranged father and his three sisters, who are also witches and manipulating their brother.  (No story there either...)  She goes to a private school and resolutely resist making friends or socializing in any way, until she 'magically' works her way into a book club.  I don't mean this as a joke, but to those who have read the book: does any of this sound interesting yet?  Am I being faithful in regards to what the book is about?  Everything is so casually mentioned as to not resonate: 'Today I did some lame ass magic,' 'I followed around the ghost of my sister,' 'I went to sleep masturbating about Wim (a horrible diminutive of William).'  (Okay, actually when she said that I was startled--heart skipped two beats; primarily because that part woke me up and I learned Morwenna has a pulse... )  Nothing in Morwenna's life matters to her and in the narrative she conveys it as such.  It sure doesn't matter the reader.

Over the course of about a year she does manage to grow and develop some, first in the friends she resents having, the book club, a boyfriend, and ultimately finding purpose and direction in her life as opposed to joining her deceased sister, but here is nothing in this journey to the end that warrants a novel.

Morwenna is perhaps the hardest part of this book to deal with.  If you love SF from the time period involved you'll probably find much to enjoy or happily reminiscence , if not expect to be excluded from about a hundred pages worth of writing in this book.  About of third of the novel.  Morwenna is also the most condescending, high-and-mighty person ever depicted on the page.  (And to this achievement Walton is to be commended: well done.)  I have three post-its full of quotes to this effect but there was one at the end that summed it all up so nicely.  "I looked at him.  He was rarer than a unicorn, a beautiful boy in a red-checked shirt who read and thought and talked about books."  She is far more shallow than those she aggressively mocks and equally unwelcoming of those who aren't like her.  There isn't much she's not better than.    

The writing is clean, clear, and very pleasing to read.  I only wish there was something remotely resembling a story to go along with it.  The ending doesn't fizzle out because what precedes the ending never built up to anything.  The book could have ended on any page--any page--to the exact same effect.  I feel it pertinent to say: I'm not condemning this book.  It's not bad and I'd never tell someone that it is, merely, I've no idea why one would choose to read it, or what compelled Walton to set out on the surely arduous task of writing it.


Maria said...

You are killing me! From now on I am buying you books that I've enjoyed the least for you to tear apart in your reviews. You just see these characters so very differently, it's like you read a completely different book.

I am not going to argue about the plot -- I would agree that wasn't quite... there. But I loved all the book discussions even for authors whom I haven't read. And she wasn't condescending! She was shy and lonely and that makes people put up a certain front and attitude towards others. I suppose I can't blame you for not relating to her, and I guess I am taking it slightly personally because she's a bit like me :)

I am gonna have to up my game in present-buying.

Chad Hull said...

No, please don't second guess yourself. The fact that we can read the same thing and get something so different out of it is part of the fun. No game-upping needed.

I'm glad we agree on plot. We even agree on the book discussion part: I've already reserved a lot from the library thanks to Walton. Much of it I may not have come across without reading Among Others. Then there are authors like Zelazny, who I know I like but needed to be reminded to look into.

As to her being a stuck up, condescending, so-and-so... Really? You didn't feel that at all? I'm gonna dig threw my trash and find those post-its I referenced and share some more quotes. That said, I could be crazy. Perhaps I was reading the book the wrong way.

I thought she was at odds with herself in a few places. For a girl who had the 'what's the big deal about sex?' attitude I was expecting her to be equally strong in all facets of her life. Making out and roaming hands with random dude at the party does not constitute shy or lonely.

Alas, the magic was lost on me. I'm a fail reader...

Maria said...

I love Zelazny. I grew up reading his books as a kid. The Amber series was really fun and I re-read it many times, though I suspect it's one of those things that I wouldn't enjoy nearly as much now as I did back then. Lord of the Light is his best standalone book, IMO. I hope you do check Zelazny out :)

I do think we read Mori very differently. Even in the quote you put into your review, when I read that I don't see it as condescending. I can see how you might interpret it as such, but when I read it, I just see a wonder at finding someone good looking who's on the same wave-length as her.

As for being shy, what I mean by shy is that she has trouble making connections with new people, opening up, being social with others. Shy to me is the difficulty in being able to approach and connect and taking a long time to make friends.

To me that doesn't contradict making out with some random dude in the dark. I don't remember that part well, but I assume it didn't happen because of her social graces. If she spent the night flirting and batting her eyes and making small talk, now that would be a contradiction.

I think liking and emphasizing with Mori along with the great writing is what really made the book so enjoyable to me.

Chad Hull said...

I am definitely checking out Zelanzy. I've come across many of his short stories and always enjoyed them; a collection is probably where I'll start. I know what you mean about stuff read as a kid and not sure if you'd like it now as an adult. I'll also looking into the stand alone as those are more my thing than series.

(This book actually inspired a rash trip to the library in which I left with two story collections by Le Guin, Crows by Ted Hughes, and Four Quartets by TS Eliot.)

I'm glad you can see where I'm coming from even if you don't agree with me. "Her wave length" is exactly my point: she's not special or from some unique plane of existence where no one else is quiet, shy, likes to read, or surprise of all surprises, attractive. She's not a fairy. She's from earth and those quality are found in abundance.

I know it's been a while since you read it so I don't expect things to stand out as clearly, but she did hook up with a dude at a party, but violated some 'unbelievable to me' English propriety by grabbing his junk and scaring the junk off. Cause you know... guys are scared off by girls who touch them when making out... (How's that for realism in fiction?)

That part totally happened.

I couldn't agree more about great writing, Walton's got that in spades. Have you been tempted to check out any of her other stuff?

Maria said...

I was thinking about checking out some of Walton's other books, but it seems like they are all series, so I haven't been quite ready to take the plunge. Plus, I haven't really heard anything about them... so the urgency or curiosity isn't quite there I guess.

Oh, and handsome guys who like to read are really not as abundant as you might think. Or at least not single :)

Anonymous said...

I liked Among Others more than you did, but I didn't love it. And i will completely agree that Morwenna is the least interesting aspect of the story. Which sucks, because she's the main character.

Chad Hull said...

Hey Red,

It's an odd choice to make, having such a dry main character, right? We've all come across anti-heros as main characters but Mori is something special in terms of plain-ness.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, really makes me wonder why Walton chose to make her main character so blah.

Penelope Sanchez said...

A fascinating heroine, a plot that carries you through twists, turns, and encounters with original characters, the history of science fiction, and into magic most beautifully conceived....what's not to like?

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