Among Others

Posted by : atcampbell | On : October 1, 2012

Among Others by Jo Walton

Ten people attended this discussion at the North Village Library, including three first-time visitors. Our topic was Jo Walton’s 2011 novel Among Others, a recent winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. The book tells a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl attending English boarding school in 1979-1980. Our protagonist  is a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy. Four of us had read the author’s work before. All of us started and finished the book.

We found much to like about this book. We thought it was a good portrayal of how a love of reading can get young people through some difficult times. One person said the book showed how reading sf/f shaped the  girl’s world view. The  coming of age story worked for us.  The protagonist has contact with fairies in the story, and many of us liked how they were presented.

The protagonist reads books that were popular at the time (by Le Guin, Dick, Silverberg, Cherryh, etc.) and offers comments about them. Our group generally felt that she has good taste. Eventually she joins a book group, and the book contains detailed accounts of its meetings. We found it was amusingly recursive  for our book group to discuss a book about a book group. We did wonder if the author really understands how book groups work. The group described in the group met weekly, and at every meeting the entire body of work of an author would be discussed. Imagine how long the Isaac  Asimov meeting must have taken!

We talked a bit about the role of fairies in the book. Some felt that they were simply “window dressing” added to the book so that it would be categories on sf/f bookshelves. Others thought the fairies were an essential part of the story. And another group felt that the action with the fairies was all taking place in the girl’s imagination.

Some of us worried that this might be too much of an “insider” book. So much of the book’s appeal comes from its discussion of the sf that was been read around 1980. Many of those books and authors are no longer popular, so people who weren’t reading sf around 1980 would miss that. One person at our meeting was in her twenties, and she confirmed that this book made her feel left out. On the other hand, a few us noted that the ideal demographic to enjoy this group is exactly the set of people who vote for the Hugos and Nebulas. One person felt that this book was even “kissing up” to such potential voters.

We were curious how much of the book is autobiographical. Jo Walton is the same age as the book’s protagonist and grew up in the same locations. Walton also writes a series of columns for Tor.com on classic sf/f, and those of use who’d read these columns noted that her opinions on books  match up well with those of her protagonist.  Since the character in the book has a terrible relationship with her mother that drives much of the book’s plot, we hope that Jo Walton’s family situation is better.

Overall this book led to an interesting discussion. Several people in our group were interested in the reading list of sf/f books mentioned in Among Others. The author helpfully provided a list on  her website.

After the meeting, several of us had a nice dinner together at Tarka.

— A. T. Campbell, III