Monday, December 13, 2010

What Happens After

I just finished reading Jo Walton's new book, Among Others. I read most of it in a morning, and it was an interesting experience. I met Jo about a year and a half ago, when she came to the Festival, and I read her Small Change books then: an alternate-history trilogy which I remember enjoying, although I don't know how much I could tell you about them now: I'd need to reread them.

But Among Others was something new, and something quite surprising. I suppose you would classify it as fantasy: after all, there are real fairies, of the creepy-wood-spirit variety, and a sort of complicated and nebulous form of magic. But unlike almost any other fantasy I've ever read, in this one very little actually happens. In fact, it's all happened already: this book is an aftermath, in a way. It's what happens to the character after the dramatic battle and the life-altering events. When the book opens, it's 1979 in England, the narrator, Morwenna, is fifteen, and she is getting on with the rest of her life after a conflict with her apparently mad, apparently witchcraft-using mother, which left Morwenna lame and her twin sister dead.

Now that seems like a spectacular sort of thing, and the kind of thing that many fantasy writers would choose to end their book with. In Walton's hands, though, the actual events that killed Morwenna's twin are never particularly clear, never described, and certainly not part of the action. The book is written as Morwenna's diary, after it's all over, and she never needs to go back and explain. The Big Battle is background to the everyday world of bitchy classmates, arbitrary rules, trying to get to know a father and family she's only just met, and trying to find a place to fit in, in her typically horrid and petty boarding school. Oh, and reading a lot, with the kind of obsessive ravenousness that a lot of born readers can relate to. (I did.)

Morwenna can use magic - a sort of very vague, sympathetic magic that only really shows its presence in coincidence and changes in fortune - and talk to fairies. She is also a voracious reader of science fiction, and her diary entries are peppered with titles of books she's reading now, and authors she's obsessed with (she's an omnivore with a particular love for Delany, Zelazny, Le Guin, and Tiptree, but she takes in practically every major work of science fiction published pre-1980 on the way.) While she waits to meet up with the fairies - who need her to perform rituals, the purpose of which she's not always entirely clear about - she brings along a book, settles down to rest her bad leg, and vanishes into Callahan's Crosstime Saloon or Cat's Cradle.

Jo Walton's breaking all kinds of SF conventions here. The magic is a lot more ordinary and unremarkable to Morwenna than the latest Asimov, and she isn't an outsider so much because she has a tragic, magical past as because she's a SF-geek bookworm with a limp who has moved to an English boarding school with a Welsh accent and a weird name. Which should sound familiar to anyone who survived being a nerd as a child. (I did.)

Okay, there are points during the story in which Morwenna learns things about using magic, of the Le Guin-like "with great power comes so much responsibility that you're probably better off not even considering using your great power" variety. When she's tempted to do a ritual to find a circle of friends, she's then troubled by the thought that maybe the book club of fellow SF lovers she finds only exist because of her ritual, and are therefore somehow less real, less genuinely her friends. But then, what outsider hasn't wondered if maybe the friends they find are really their friends, or if it's all some kind of elaborate trick?

So the magic probably could stand in for all sorts of things: adulthood, responsibility, taking charge of your own life, moving on out of a tragedy, hanging on to the creativity and wonder of your childhood and using it to strengthen yourself. At its heart, though, I think the book is about being an intelligent and lonely teenager and finding your way: it's a love letter to the intense relationship some teens can have with science fiction and fantasy - or any subculture that involves that kind of intense consumption: perhaps Morwenna could have been a fan of, say, punk music, collecting bootleg tapes and fanzines. But Jo Walton being who she is, it's about magic, starships, and interlibrary loans. 

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