I should have liked Among Others. I’m the target audience: “geek” who found community among other sf/fantasy nerds as an adolescent. The fact that I didn’t like it means that I’m somehow out of touch with my own community since the book won the Hugo, Nebula, and British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2012.
(I won’t bother with the plot summary since other reviews have done it more concisely than I can.)
And yet the whole thing felt wrong. On the one hand, I just couldn’t get over the precious and self-satisfied sense of “insider-ness” of the book. The ideal reader is one who apparently clutches the book to one’s chest and sighs, “Oh, me, too!” (The gist: our narrator Mor constantly discusses the sf/fantasy books she’s reading while growing up in the late 70’s, and her reading list gives a structure to the novel.)
On the other, and this is worse, the book felt completely cynical about the shared experience it was supposed to create.
One way to put it is that the book undervalued the substance of genre fiction while glorifying in the culture of shared books. Or, alternatively, it said that all geeks really want is to be loved, not love to be different. Or, worst, it’s that the book suggests that there’s really nothing particularly interesting about genre fiction at all.
The central conceit seems to get right at that: Here’s a girl who actually lives the magic of fantasy. Her fairies are real. Her mother truly is a witch. And she can actually “do” magic. But she doesn’t think that magic is all that fun or interesting (in fact, she has very little curiosity about it), the books she talks about are usually there as occasions for her to feel superior or judgmental (of the authors’ or of other peoples’ reading habits), and when all is said and done, all she really cares about is making friends.
Now, that’s a perfectly fine and probably widely shared desire, and the metaphor even works. Let’s say there’s a girl who’s a whiz at math but really wants to have a circle of friends that she doesn’t get because she’s “left out” for her odd talent. Fair enough. But the problem is that Walton’s conclusion doesn’t really value the things that make those “geeks” exceptional in the first place. And the book’s backstory plays that out, suggesting that Mor’s sense of isolation began when she lost her twin, and everything else in her life (from reading to the fairies) is really just a supplement for that lost sense of connection.
And, in the end, the only thing Mor gains by reading sf/fantasy is a group of friends (and potential boyfriend) in a sf reading group she stumbles upon. The nerd makes friends, those friends help her avoid her insane mother, and they all go live happily in a safe, non magical world.
So, while the book was widely praised for giving voice to how young nerdish types found solace in genre fiction, it completely demystifies everything fantastic. Magic is made boring, the fairies are ultimately uninteresting, and all real wonder turns out to be dangerous (Mor’s mother, a witch, is trying to kill her, and Mor avoids magic to keep her mother from knowing where she is). Put the metaphor back on the math kid, and what value is the thing that makes her different? According to this book’s trajectory, she should find a way to “get over” math in order to find the things she really wants: a boyfriend (or, to be fair, friends). In other words, the things that make you weird (being magical, liking stories about magic, or, metaphorically, being “good at math” or whatever else takes you out of the mainstream), are only interesting in terms of how you can create community around them. It even might be suggesting that geek “culture” (whether of books or math or whatever marks people as non-mainstream) is just a symptom of some brokenness or lack and that thinking there’s some valuable in those non-mainstream interests is to misunderstand the real drama of being a “geek.”
And what does that do the sf/fantasy books the she loves? It makes them ciphers, nothing more. They’re a mark of difference with no real consequence. There’s nothing intrinsically magical about these shared genre books that form a community, not only in the fiction, but around all the fans who saw themselves and their own experience in the book. Replace the books with, say, a shared love of Australian rules football in rural Wyoming among a cast of misfits, and you essentially have the same story.
In other words, this book is not a love note to adolescent fandom. It’s a public apology for liking it in the first place. Once we grow up, find real people with real, let’s call them “mainstream” concerns, all that special stuff can fall by the wayside. We won’t need magic anymore because we’ll have friends. Sf/fantasy really is just escapism for the lonely.
And that can’t have been Walton’s purpose, at least I don’t imagine it is because of everything else she’s written. Walton elsewhere popularized the term “Suck Fairy” to describe what happens when you reread something you loved as a child that has had all the good and wonder sucked out of it – such a book must have been visited by the Suck Fairy. And yet reading Among Others, I felt like I was watching the Suck Fairy in action, like I was reading a fantasy novel about a girl who didn’t really want all the fantastic things she lived, like maybe the math genius who secretly didn’t want to be good at math. But the worse suspicion was that the Suck Fairy might not be a magical creature that comes and changes things. Instead, the Suck Fairy might be ourselves, prose overtaking poetry, age overtaking youth, or reality overtaking wonder. But if that’s the case, then I don’t want Walton’s version of being “Among Others” if it means that I have to “grow up” from the reasons I started reading this stuff in the first place.
In this case, and by heaping praise on the book, the sf/fantasy community got themselves very, very wrong.