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Among Others

"Why aren't I like other people?"

Alternate Realities and the Unreliable Dissociative in Jo Walton's Among Others

Growing up, I was that kid tucked away in the darkest, most remote corner of the public library's basement reading vast tomes of science fiction because I wasn't allowed to take the novels home. My domineering Catholic mother "screened" all reading material in the house and I was left with Tolkien, Brian Jacques, and C.S. Lewis as my only bed companions for several years of my life. For this reason, Jo Walton's modern fantasy novel Among Others strikes home for me in poignant and often difficult ways. The novel documents the daily musings of fifteen-year-old Morwenna, "Mori," Phelps, a Welsh teenager who is left partially crippled after a tragic accident kills her twin sister Mor. Mori not only reads science fiction and fantasy novels, she obsesses over them. Her voracious appetite for alternative worlds, as well as her connection to fairies and other spirits that dwell in places only she knows how to find, inadvertently points to her need to escape; a behavior typical of those who have experienced trauma or fractured, domestic upbringings. For this reason, the novel is compelling as it blends both fantastic and harrowing realities in what one could readily refer to as a bildungsroman, or a coming of age story.

The story begins with Mori settling into her new life with her estranged father. She has run away from home to escape her mother, a witch who settles at nothing to abuse her for her own will for more spiritual power, and her mother's boyfriend, a man that routinely attempts to sexually abuse her. Her paternal father, whom she refers to uncharacteristically as Daniel because he abandoned her when she was an infant, takes her in. Daniel himself is employed by his three rich sisters who Mori suspects of being witches themselves (they routinely speak in lines of three like the Weird Sisters) and by their decree, Mori is sent to Arlinghurst, an expensive boarding school. Here, she finds herself drifting through classes, making only a few friends, and only savoring her time alone reading, practicing magic, or probing the school grounds for dens and alcoves she believes fairies are likely to reside. However, after a series of psychic attacks from her mother, Mori slowly begins to realize that the magic she has used to protect herself may have unexpected lethal effects.

This is a challenging yet rewarding text for multiple reasons. Walton has sought to pay homage to several genres at once: the coming of age novel, fantasy, modern fiction, and the memoir. In doing so, she has woven a compelling story that none could possibly agree is consistently brilliant, or even memorable half the time. But therein rests the quandary: did Walton purposefully construct her text in a way that naturally mirrors a mind at work? Did she purposefully write about trauma, an obsession with science fiction, and a mind trudging involuntarily forth in that blended threshold that narrates a magical world that isn't real within the novel itself? Here are some observations I have regarding the story and what I can only understand as Walton's underlying motivations.

1. Science fiction fandom at its peak

Among Others, in many ways, is a scattered catalogue of lists much of the science fiction and fantasy canon. Mori's continual reference to iconic authors such as, Asimov, Clarke, Le Guin, Zelazny, Herbert, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Vonnegut, Bradbury, or Heinlen, including countless others, becomes a routine trope within the text. As an avid fan myself, it was not difficult for me, on most occasions, to comprehend her meaning when she alluded to certain characters or passages in their novels. For example, when Mori muses about "Trumps and the Shadows" and "Hellrides through Shadow," or "Kentucki Fried Lizzard Partes," it is likely that a reader unacquainted with Zelazny's work would not pick up on the meaning of these references (203). This can be potentially off-putting as it occurs on a regular basis. Yet, she usually saves her more salient observations for more widely known texts such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which she bases an extraordinary amount of emphasis. Renaming places and people within the text as iconic parts of that novel such as Osgiliath for an abandoned building or Glorfindel for one of her favorite fairies, is a way that Mori attempts to handle or categorize reality "among" her.

2. "Meanwhile, I am between, between everything, between worlds, eating a KitKat and writing in here. I like trains" (80).

"Memories are like a big pile of carpets, I keep them piled up in one big pile in my head and don't pay much attention to them" (139).

Walton's way of expressing Mori's thoughts is one of the more compelling aspects of the novel. If nothing else, it can be regarded as interchangeably dissociative, endearing, and alarming. In a rush of consciousness, Mori often alludes to science fiction texts, innocuous things like honey buns, the fairies she saw in the morning and then suddenly moments of abuse. Here is one such passage. She reveals:
I'm lucky I can write mirror by just using my left hand... Anyway... Last night, after I finished writing I here, I read for a bit (World of Ptaavs, Niven) and then put the light out... he, my father-I really should call him Daniel, it's his name... came in... He was drunk. He was crying. He tried to get into my bed and kiss me, and I had to push him away... But he seemed to want me, and who else is going to want me, broken as I am?... Anyway... I lay there thinking Sturgeon story in Dangerous Visions" (79-80).
This striking passage, like others throughout the novel, paints a classic abuse/trauma/dissociation complex that relies on a realm of fantasy to sustain itself. To cope, or at least it seems to cope because she never alludes to it directly, Mori runs to the world of science fiction and fantasy. She also runs to fairies, where she is "needed" because "they can't do a lot" or "really interact all that much with the world" so they must "get other people to do it for them, and that meant [her]" (84). Mori would rather deal with fairies and read all that time, dwelling in that supernatural threshold than face the reality of her domestic life.

3. An impending horror

But as one continues to read Among Others, things begin to take a more insidious turn. Mori's witch mother finds out about the boarding school and begins sending cryptic letters as curses, including photos of Mori where her image has been carefully burned out. Suddenly, and without warning, she must go to see a doctor and is involuntarily strapped to a hospital bed with her crippled leg fastened to a stretching apparatus. She spends an entire week in excruciating pain. Mori writes, "A woman at the end of the ward has started to scream, short staccato cutoff screams. They're putting screens around her bed so the rest of us can't see what they're doing to her. This is definitely much worse than the way most people describe hell" (211). Furthermore, although Mori is finally released the pain is infinitely worse than it was before. And although she does reach out to her distant relative Sam to protect her, she inevitably is faced with a traumatic crisis at the conclusion of the novel where Mori's life is changed forever.

4. The case of the unreliable narrator

Among Others seems like it should be a regarded as a modern fantasy text (albeit taking place from 1979 to 1980), but something seems amiss. Seeing the world through the eyes of an abused teenager obsessed with science fiction and dwelling on her own with fairies who eventually attempt to kill her calls to mind the implications of unreliable narration. Mori herself insists, "It's amazing how large the things are that it's possible to overlook" (34). Mori indeed does not only gloss over, but often overlooks the troubling realities that exist around her. A reader must question whether or not the magic she claims to having exercised is "real" in the context of the book. Does Mori's mother really have supernatural powers, or is Mori incapable of facing abuse other than through a realm of science fiction? These are questions that linger at the conclusion of the novel, which I have chosen not to thoroughly dissect in the event you choose to read the book on your own.

Ultimately, Among Others is a solid book that raises several questions about the meaning and purpose of having an alternate reality to cope with fear and abuse. It is by no means completely saturated with darkness or depressing passages. There is a great deal of humor, sarcasm, and wit that play very well with the natural acumen of Mori's mind. But the novel certainly leaves readers with compelling implications. To what extent is science fiction and fantasy used to displace reality? At one point does this immersion blur the boundaries between what is real and what is not? I recommend the text, but I warn that it can be troublesome, especially for those that have created similar alternate spaces for themselves.

Review Scoring System: Grading A-F
Originality of ContentA-
Plot StructureB+
Potential Achieved85.85%

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