Saturday, 21 January 2012

Among Others and some science fiction thoughts on reading science fiction

Among Others by Jo Walton is an extraordinary novel about a Welsh teenage girl who is sent to a boarding school in England after she runs away from home.  Her twin sister is dead as the result of a car accident which has left Morwenna crippled, able to walk, but never to run or move freely again.  Her mother is.......strange, her grandfather had a stroke, and the courts have deemed that Morwenna is better off with the father who abandoned the father shortly after the girls' birth, rather than force her back to live with her mother.  You would think this would make the book a downer to read, heavily depressing, but it doesn't.  Most of it is because Morwenna is so matter-of-fact about everything.  At one point while reading it I found myself dissatisfied with the lack of emotion she shows. Why isn't she grieving over the loss of her twin?  Why isn't she furious with her mother, who caused the accident that killed her sister? I realized that Morwenna is simply trying to survive the best way she knows how.  And her way is the same way I did, when I was a teenager and my life was in complete shambles - books.  Morwenna reads voraciously, almost anything she can find, and most particularly science fiction.  Morwenna reads to escape her life, of course, however she also reads  to explore different ideas - she's captured by what could be, by changing things, by possibility.  And this sense of discovery is what I love about science fiction so much.  Along the way of reading this novel, watching her discussing the books she was reading, I rediscovered something I had forgotten growing up:  how much I enjoy science fiction. In Among Others, Morwenna finds a book club at her local library, where they discuss science fiction.  One of the questions they ask each other one meeting is, Which would you rather meet, an elf or a Plutonion? I'll ask that now of you, Gentle Reader, and at the end of my post I'll tell you what Morwenna thinks it means, and what my answer was. 

. Among Others is much more than just a discourse on science fiction.  Plato, Mary Renault, and Susan Cooper (yes! The Dark is Rising is mentioned!) are some of the other books Morwenna reads. Elves feature, and they are imagined in a way that I really like.  I am happy that  fantasy feature here in this novel. It's not quite as large of course, because other than Lord Dunsany, Tolkein, Anne McCaffrey,  The Earthsea Trilogy by LeGuin, and  CS Lewis (all of whom Morwenna reads), there was no fantasy being written before1979, the year this book takes place in. It's significant that it's this year, since it's just before the 80's and the explosion of fantasy and science fiction as a viable genre of literature, with all the conventions and book tours and famous authors coming into the public sphere. During the novel Morwenna hears about conventions in the US, and that there is going to be one in Glasgow the next summer, and she plans to go. Her discovery of other people who read science fiction, and the chance to meet science fiction authors, blows her mind in the novel.  It's kind of refreshing to read about a character who is excited about the possibilities of the world, instead of the jaded youth who have seen and done it all that people our YA novels right now.  The fantasy element is important, because Morwenna can see elves.  It's part of her family, and something that interestingly is part of her nature, and not something that she fights against, as you would normally expect in a teen coming of age novel.  Instead, Morwenna must think her way through the repercussions of using magic, using her intelligence and reasoning.  She is very perceptive, which is why the period when I wondered if she was crazy, was so distressing - though it made sense, especially given that no one else can see the elves.  She is alone, among others.

I really enjoyed Among Others, very much.  It's well-written, well-researched historically (walkmans are just coming on the market in 1979 in the book), and despite the reserve of Morwenna, there are times when it is extremely moving as well.  The ending is particularly good, as Morwenna faces what she fears most.  I haven't written about the idea of her mother being a witch, which Morwenna talks about through the book, and how she thinks she is like her mother, because it seemed an odd fit to me.  At one point I wondered if Morwenna herself was crazy and had imagined everything in her past. I didn't want Morwenna to be an unreliable narrator because that would have been too easy to do.  I'm happy to report that she isn't crazy.  I don't want to say any more, because the ending and what she does is truly remarkable and powerful, and I really liked it. Walton has made fantasy and science fiction fit together, and that's remarkable also..  I love the use of books to illustrate what Morwenna is going through, and how she uses books to find her way to her own future.  I love that her love of books brings her together with her father, her grandfather, her new friends at the bookclub, and eventually her first boyfriend.

The novel is set in Wales and in England.  For anyone who knows anything of these two countries, Wales is not and never will be English.  Morwenna (and her twin sister Morganna) are the product of a mixed heritage, Welsh, English, and eventually she discovers other cultures in her background.  Her boarding school is in England, so Morwenna goes from her childhood idyll in Wales, running free among the hills, to being tightly monitored in an English boarding school, where she faces racism for being from a poor family and not from England. Among Others is a layered title, playing on science fiction idea of being a stranger in a strange land, of being not like those around you, of being Welsh when everyone around you is English, of having your mother crazy but no one protecting you, of losing a sibling, one who knows you better than most, and that sense of aloneness that comes with all these things. Morwenna has no one to talk to, no one she trusts, in this strange new place, so the novel is told from a diary perspective over one year. Among Others is also about how Morwenna has to learn to live among others without her twin, the person who finished her thoughts, and discovering that she and her twin were not the same person and she would have to live her own life after all. It's quite a clever novel, and I liked it.

By the way, to Morwenna's question:  would I rather meet an elf or a Plutonion?  I would rather, always, meet an elf.  Especially an elf like in Lord of the Rings. I always wanted to sail away with them at the end of LotR.  I thought and always have thought, they were beautiful and powerful and courageous, like the very best we could aspire to be. Not the faerie, who are completely different, and frightening (and should be), just the LotR elves.  The point of the question is, to meet an elf or to meet a Plutonion is to meet the past or embrace the future.  Maybe the Plutonion is wandering around here already on earth, among us.....that wouldn't be so bad, right? And this sense of discovery is what I love about science fiction so much.  Along the way of reading this novel, watching her discussing the books she was reading, I rediscovered something I had forgotten growing up:  how much I enjoy science fiction.

Reading science fiction leads to.....
So, on to my science fiction thoughts: reading Among Others awoke those memories of possibility in me, that I remember from the science fiction conventions I went to in the 1980's, from the authors I heard talk, from the buzz of so many people coming together to discuss books and ideas and what they loved.  It reminded me that the reason I join Carl's Sci fi experience very year is to read science fiction more often.  I always pick fantasy first out of a choice of fantasy and science fiction, because I find myths and fantasy easier to relate to imaginatively......but I am a person of contradictions, as we all are, and I have always looked up at the stars and wondered what's out there.  I desperately wanted to be an astronomer but couldn't do the math. You, my Gentle Reader, know of my love for so many things science fiction - Dr Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Fringe, X-files, Firefly, etc.  Reading science fiction though, has sort of lurked at the corner of my life for the past several years (ok, truthfully, at least a decade), the neglected genre that I mostly read for Connie Willis.  I think that over the years, because I couldn't keep up with the science end of things, I let my enjoyment of science fiction slide until I was barely reading any at all.  I felt like an imposter when I talked about science fiction because I couldn't understand the truth of the science behind it, when realistically, I never read it for the science, I read it to know what was possible for us to do as people of earth.  That's what I miss, imagining the future that is possible, that fantasy doesn't give me.   Lately I've been wandering through the science fiction and fantasy aisles, looking for something new to read.  I have been trying to find a copy of Alistair Reynold's Revelation Space to buy for well over a year, and it's not available (not out of print, just not available).  It's one of the classics of the new space opera science fiction story that I find interesting.

 So when Carl posted earlier this week about a new science fiction challenge, on Worlds Without End blog, I read it through curiously.  On the blog, laid out in easy to use format, is a booktracker program where you can input all the science fiction, horror, and fantasy you have ever read, and see how you are doing on reading the best of (or all anyone has written) in science fiction, fantasy and horror. Well, it was like a light bulb lit up for me!  I did the book tracker and realized that I have read a little of everything, but not lots of any one thing.  I'm pleased to note I have read some Hugo and Nebula winners, which I do try to keep track of.

So......*takes deep breath*

I have decided to join the Grand Masters Challenge, and read one classic science fiction novel by one of the Grand Masters, every month for a year. I'm excited.  I want to go back now and rediscover what's good and the best of it again.  Here's my chance to reconnect with the roots of science fiction, and  to read the best, and see if I can find some new favourites.

The Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award reads like a who's who of science fiction:  Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, Connie Willis, Jack Williamson, L Sprague De Camp, Fritz Leiber, Andre Norton, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, Arther C Clarke, Clifford D Simak, Lester Del Rey, Frederick Pohl, Damon Knight, A. E Van Vogt, Jack Vance, Hal Clement, Brian Aldiss, Philip Jose Farmer, Poul Anderson, Joe Haldeman, Harry Harrison, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, James E. Gunn

So far I've signed up to read -
-yes, Connie Willis was my first choice!  Luckily I have one new one to read, All Clear  :-)  because I've read everything else by her.
- Robert Silverberg (and Cath just reviewed a book by him on her blog, that was quite interesting),
- Ursula K LeGuin - at last! I can't believe I haven't read The Earthsea Trilogy yet.
- Isaac Asimov (who I grew up reading) - I honestly can't remember how many of the foundation books I've read, so I need to reread the first one and I, Robot (which I recall really liking when I first read it as a teenager), just to start catching up
- Anne McCaffrey (I have Dragonsinger sitting right here on my shelf.  Again, an unread classic...)
- Alfred Bester (if I can find it, The Stars My Destination is a classic)
-Poul Anderson (happily, I just picked up two by him, Hrolf Kroki's Saga and The Midsummer Tempest. Though technically these might qualify as fantasy, so I need to look more into what he's written)
- Arthur C Clarke (I want Rendezvous with Rama!  there must be something we can do to get these classics back in print)
- Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land is a possibility, though I want The Moon is A Harsh Mistress, I think)

By the way, I'm under the challenge on the site as bookgirl if you want to look at how I'm doing on the challenge.  I was still on painkillers for my knee and thus couldn't think  of a name when I signed up.  I think I  like it anyway!  I will keep you posted through here too, as we have to write 6 posts through the year on 6 of the 12 books we are reading. I'm feeling excited and a little challenged, since I haven't read most of the authors, and it's a feeling of discovery all over again.   So I'm eager to find what's new - and old and good - in science fiction again.

Even though it's counted as fantasy in my book section at Chapters bookstore here, I'm counting Among Others as science fiction because so much of the books it covers is science fiction literature up to 1979.  So this is my first book for Carl's Sci fi experience.

Among Others showed me, reminded me, that science fiction is about ideas.  People need connection and emotion to make that journey into the future possible.  How can we create the best possible future for future generations, if we can't imagine what it would be like? what kind of future do we want?  Where will we go?  Where could we go?  I loved Star Trek for that possibility, and I love Among Others for reminding me that science fiction literature is the home of the future for us.   This genre is a way we have of exploring what the human race is capable of, what we imagine we could do if we were freed to explore, and what we bring along with us everywhere in the galaxy we go.


Bybee said...

You've made me want to read Among Others. Yay!

Cath said...

I think I would go for the elf too, and for the same reason... the Lord of the Rings connection. I've looked for good elvish books for years and not really been able to find what I really want, other than Tolkein. Lots of books have elves but they're usually not *my* idea of them.

It's funny, when I was a teen Damon Knight was my absolute favourite sci-fi writer. Mind, our library in Penzance back in the 60s was not overflowing with sci-fi. LOL. I was able to pick it out by the yellow Gollanz covers and Damon Knight wrote for them. I also used to read a lot of A.E. Van Vogt and Clifford Simak... his Cosmic Engineers was a huge favourite but I let my copy go years ago and now regret it bitterly.

Your list is looking excellent! Anne McCaffrey's Freedom's Landing books are also rather good as well as Pern. Ursula Le Guin... as well as Earthsea (which is wonderful)... I really like her Hainish series and love, love, love her anthology, The Birthday of the World. I've never read a single thing by Robery Heinlein which is a sad confession... especially as my eldest daughter was a huge fan throughout her teen years.

I can't wait to read your posts about what you read, Susan. I may even check out the challenge myself, though I have enough of those on the go at the moment really. And I will definitely be getting Among Others. In fact, I'm scarily excited about it!

Jodie Robson said...

I've definitely got to argue with "no fantasy being written before 1979"! Just running down by 101 children's books list (all of which is pre-1975)I've got: George MacDonald, Andrew Lang, E. Nesbit, Hugh Lofting, Norman Hunter, Mervyn Peake, Saint-Exupery, L.M. Boston, Edward Eager, Barbara Sleigh, Madeleine L'Engle (also SF), Andre Norton, Victoria Walker, Diana Wynne Jones...and that was missing out some people who might be described as primarily writers of fairy tales, like Nicholas Stuart Gray. But I've always counted fairy tales as fantasy. Just quibbling :-)

I think I'd go for the elf, too. I like elves, if they are "proper" ones!

Shall have to read Among Others, you make it sound good - in Fire and Hemlock (DW-J) the Tam Lin character gives Polly books to educate her about myth and magic.

Kailana said...

I loved this book when I read it last year. :)

Gavin said...

Wonderful post, Susan. Now I need to head over to Worlds Without End and check into the Grand Masters Challenge. I avoided it when Carl mentioned it cause I felt it might add too much to my challenge goals for the year but then I realized I can make it fit into the Sci Fi Experience and The Speculative Fiction Challenge.

And even though I would love to meet an Elf my first choice would be the Plutonion. Maybe I could hitch a ride on their ship....

Anonymous said...

For most of the book I was also thinking that Morwena was maybe a little mentally ill, despite her pragmatic voice. For all the talk of fantasy, the magical parts in this book were mostly subdued until the end. I loved almost everything about this novel!

icowdave said...

Hello Susan,
I'm glad you decided to join in the Grand Master Reading Challenge! This is our first time doing a challenge and we're having a lot of fun and getting some positive vibe and many great reviews in the bargain. I can't wait to read yours! Thanks for spreading the word.

Stephanie said...

I am so far out of the loop with books these days, I'm making notes on all the blogs I am visiting. This book sounds really good! I think you just talked me into putting it on my wish list!

I wish I had more time to read. I was never a big sci-fi/fantasy fan until right before I started blogging. I picked up a book by an author I had never heard of before and it changed my life. Literally. The Little Country by Charles de Lint definitely changed the way I read. Of course the last year or so, I've only read what I needed to for school...but I've got to get out of that mindset. I really miss books and discussing them. I'm even thinking about signing up for some challenges.

Thanks for a wonderful post!

Emily Barton said...

I've discovered fantasy/sci fi rather late in life, but I'm enjoying what I read now. Among Others sounds like a terrific read, so into the TBR tome it goes. I'll enjoy the challenge vicariously through you.

Susan said...

Bybee: I hope you enjoy it!

Cath: You were right, you did have lots of lovely things to say! I think in some ways, Tolkien set the bar for elves, partly because he used Norse mythology/sagas as a way of telling their story, so it gives them a deeper basis than the faeries currently in fantasy. Just a theory of mine, as I agree with you too - I've looked for years too and there really hasn't been good elvish books like what Tolkien did with his.

See, I haven't read any Damon Knight! The weird thing is, when I was in the bookstore Monday looking at science fiction, I remembered many of the books from when I worked in the bookstores, and some I'd even bought before and had on my shelves! I'm going to the library now with an eye to see what they have in paperback :-) It could be a science fiction reading year!

I hope you and Bybee enjoy Among Others, I can hardly wait for you to read it now!

Susan said...

Geraniumcat: quibble back: they are children's fantasy and when I was a teenager, I wanted adult books that were fantasy!!! lol You are perfectly right, but also I went from a small town in British Columbia to Quebec City, neither of which were overflowing with lots of English (in Quebec City) books to read. I read everything at the library, though once i read LoTR, I didn't want to read sci-fi for a couple of years, until I couldn't find any more good fantasy because it was just being written. That was what I was trying to say, I think. Eventually I found my way to the children's section and the excellent fairy tales etc there - so you could be a good resource for all the wonderful children's lit with fairies!

I read Fire and Hemlock a few years ago - I remember that about Polly getting those books to read.

I'm going to be curious about what you think about Among Others, too!

Kailana: after I wrote my post, I realized that I hadn't linked to anyone's reviews! I will be doing that after I finish catching up here. I've been offline for most of the week, trying to get my new laptop to work (something is wrong with the browser).

Gavin: yaaay! One for the Plutonian! and I;m glad I could convince you to go check out Worlds Without End too.

StephanieD: I'm really glad you enjoyed the book so much too! It's so well-written. I'll link to your review when I add those in a minute.

icowdave: thanks so much for hosting it! and creating that superb booktracker, I have so much fun looking for interesting books I want to read. I'm a visual person, so those covers are like candy and good for my mind to remember them!! I'm so excited to be reading science fiction in a bigger way this year. The challenge is really exciting. I have to read my first author now and go post with the challenge.

Stephanie: how lovely to hear from you! Hurray! Are you still in school? Or are you taking a break right now? I remember when I finished university, the freedom to pick what I wanted to read versus what I had to read for a course was amazing.

The amazing thing about books is that they are always there, ready for us. Even though I read sci-fi years ago, I'm excited about returning to it in a bigger way again. It's time for it, is the only way I can explain it. Like finding fantasy was for you. I hope you enjoy Among Others :-)

Emily: YOu know how sometimes we go through reading cycles? I think this is what this is for me. I will always read mysteries, and still have my goal of reading 50 this year! It just feels like a sci-fi year, for the first time in ages, where I want to read lots. I think it's wonderful that books are there waiting for us,like I said to Stephanie above, until we are ready for them.

I think I really want a year when I can read, read, read and skip working and anything else that takes me away from it!!

I hope you enjoy Among Others too :-)