A review of Jo Walton’s Among Others
By Derek Newman-Stille
Cover photo courtesy of the publisher
SF has a pedagogical value – it teaches, it shares experiences, and it opens the mind to new horizons. Outsiders and social outcasts are often drawn to SF as a means to explore a world that seems strange and alienating to them – reading the alien as a way of understanding themselves. Jo Walton’s Among Others explores how young Morwenna, a girl with a disability, and far more clever than others girls in her year, explores the world through pages of SF books, living in a conversation between reality and the fantastic. SF becomes a tool for her to navigate her life – learning about diversity, philosophy, love, utopian ideas, politics, sexuality, and gaining deeper context for human existence. Yet, SF books also have a power about them beyond learning about magic – as a girl who can do magic and can see fairies, SF becomes a tool for magic, using the pages and phrases of her books as protection from spells around her. SF books are more than themselves, deeper, and beyond the ordinary.
Morwenna has always been able to see fairies, and at a young age tried to shape them according to the precepts of Fantasy books, Tolkeinising them and limiting their reality to what she hoped would be the case. As she ages, she begins to learn about the nature of fairies for themselves, rather than trying to put her ideas upon them. They are extensions of the landscape, extensions of place and space for a girl who is having difficulty finding her place.
Morwenna’s mother seeks to use magic to rule the world, changing it to suit her, but Morwenna debates the nature of magic, questioning its use and the morality of changing the world. Magic works in subtle ways, changing the world in ways that could be debated or disregarded. Spells change the conditions of things to cause the desired things to come about – a leaf dropped in a toxic puddle can transform a wasteland of industry into a garden, but not instantly as it occurs in many fantasy novels. Magic in Walton’s world just sets the conditions whereby things can be changed, causing the closing of a factory and the abandonment of an industrial area so that nature can reclaim it. Magic suffuses Morwenna’s life, but it is subtle, changeable, and debatable.
Pain and loss have shaped Morewenna’s life – the pain of her damaged leg, the loss of her twin, and the continued ostracism of her peers. The temptation to use magic to better her life is all around her, yet her moral structure prevents her from using it. When she does a spell to find a community and is suddenly asked to join a Science Fiction book club, she worries that she has taken the will from her compatriots and made them like her. She fears taking agency away from others and becoming like her mother.
Morwenna sees more than others do, aware of the depth and context of the world. She not only sees the magical world, but notices things in her world that others ignore and disregard. She sees differently than those around her, fascinated and interested in things that others wouldn’t give attention to, and finds the topics of other people her age uninteresting and pedantic. With so many fascinating things in the world, she wonders why they would focus so much on petty gossip.
Told through a series of journal entries, Among Others is a tale of self discovery and loneliness in which SF provides not only tales to entertain, but lessons to live by and fuel for the magical world surrounding Morwenna.
To read more about Among Others, you can explore Tor’s website at http://us.macmillan.com/amongothers/JoWalton .