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Volume 29, Number 2, Winter 2011

Among Others

By Jo Walton
Tor, 2011
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

Critics have remarked on how often a first novel is a kind of autobiography. It’s no surprise that Jo Walton does things differently: Among Others is her ninth novel. The result is a richer literary work: The correspondences to her own life are more imaginatively transformed, in ways that serve the needs of the premise, not the author’s unfinished business. As John Keats said of poetry, this is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” The practice should recommend itself to other authors.

Among Others isn’t overtly libertarian—though LFS members will be delighted by the conversation about Robert A. Heinlein on pages 248-249. It couldn’t really be expected to be, inasmuch as Walton’s own views aren’t libertarian (see her acceptance speech for the Prometheus Award for Ha’Penny), but on the left; her common ground with libertarians is in recognition of the dangers of political authoritarianism, especially the moral dangers to the integrity of people caught up in it. But Among Others isn’t overtly political in this sense. It’s about other things entirely.

In the first place, it’s about encountering the supernatural. Walton’s protagonist, Mori Phelps (short for Morwenna), has something like “second sight”: she can see beings she calls fairies—neither pretty little creatures with wings in the Victorian style, nor Tolkienian elves, but mysterious creatures, often not humanoid, which perceive and communicate mostly in nonhuman ways. She can also see the spirit of her dead twin sister Morganna, lingering on Earth after a traumatic experience that left Morwenna lame. Seemingly this awareness is tied up with the ability to work magic—not the magic of sword and sorcery, with memorized spells and elaborate rituals that produce reliable results, but something more intuitive and unpredictable. These abilities seem to be hereditary: Mori’s mother has them as well, and in fact part of the story is an ongoing magical conflict between the two.

Another part is a school story: After Mori goes to live with her father, she’s sent to the boarding school that his three sisters attended. This fits many of the common tropes of boarding school stories: administrative rigidity about what courses Mori can take, clear class differences and snobbery about them, a minor subplot about another girl being romantically attracted to Mori. Standing against the difficulties, there are Mori’s friendships with some of the other girls, and the support she receives from the school librarian.

Ironically, for many American readers, this sort of setting has an imaginative appeal in its own right, as an exotic frame for a story; this is part of the attraction of J. K. Rowling’s novels, for example. It’s a neat reversal that at one point Mori comments to another character about the imaginative education scheme invented by Roger Zelazny and Heinlein for some of their fiction, in which college students are free to choose courses that interest them, and graduate when they have enough completed courses, only to have him say, “That’s what they really do in America.”

The third part—almost in a thesis/antithesis/synthesis pattern (which may work better as a literary frame than it does as social theory!)—is Mori’s involvement in a group of science fiction readers, to which the school librarian introduces her after learning about it. In fact, a recurrent motif of Among Others is the listing of books and stories Mori has read; and since Mori’s attendance at the school starts in 1979, these will mostly be familiar titles for LFS members. Walton does a brilliant job of re-creating the experience of discovering fellow enthusiasts and talking about interests one thought no one else shared; and she makes it a source of magical strength in itself, one that Mori can turn to at the novel’s climax.

At the same time, it’s the focus of an ethical dilemma about magic, one that hits Mori very hard. Her magic is the raw stuff, the power of consciousness to reshape reality to its own wishes, not just in the present, but retroactively—in the words of an old joke, “Please, God, make it didn’t happen.” But if she can do this, are other people’s actions really theirs? Is her group of fellow science fiction readers real, or did her own desires create it? An important part of Mori’s characterization is her struggle with the ethics of power. At a very deep level, then, the theme of Among Others reflects concerns that will make sense to libertarians. Walton’s concern with such issues is a key to her appeal to libertarian readers, despite many disagreements on political issues as usually defined.

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