Coming of Age in “Among Others”: A look at Culture, Social Class, and Science Fiction

“It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.”

-Jo Walton

[Spoiler’s Ahoy: read at your own risk!]

While I planned to write my first entry on “The Marriage Plot,” I just finished a delightful book called “Among Others” by Jo Walton, which fits in perfectly with my introduction to this blog.  This novel has already won the Nebula Award for Best Novel this year and has been nominated for the Hugo.  The book enchanted me on multiple levels.  The main character, Mor, lives and breathes books.  Reading is how she spends most of her waking hours for believable reasons, and she especially loves science fiction and fantasy.  She is involved in the world of fairy and practices magic.  However, she also spends her time in the book navigating her life in boarding school, as well as her relationships with other people.  This story is a coming of age story, but it includes so much more.  She spends her childhood in Wales, and then she goes to boarding school in England.  The formatting is charming as it is the journal of the character, and it expresses her love of books.  This resonated with me, and I selected the opening quote above due to the fact that good books have been my friends, particularly during the rough patches of my life.

This character’s development illustrates the point that literature can be an important agent of socialization, changing how we think, feel, and act.  Literature, especially science fiction, also helps us critique our culture or use our “sociological imagination”.  It plays a huge role in the main character’s development as a person.  More specifically, the character is drawn to the unique societies presented in sci-fi and fantasy.  Her interactions with these ideas allow her to analyze her own culture, as well as her place in that culture.  In fact, one of the most intriguing aspects of the book to me was the look at differences between the culture she grew up in versus the culture of England.

From a sociological standpoint, this book analyzes industry, the environment, social class conflict, gender roles, power, disability, and relationships.  As a sociology instructor intrigued by the history of work and its relationship to culture, I enjoyed seeing the brief discussion of the impact of a factory on the environment, as well as how the closing of the factory impacted the local economy.  There is a great deal of social class discussion, often in covert ways.

For example, Mor journals, “Class is entirely intangible, and the way it affects things isn’t subject to scientific analysis, and it’s not supposed to be real but it’s pervasive and powerful. See; just like magic” (66).  Of course, social class is socially constructed.  However, while it isn’t “real,” it influences people lives.  I loved the comparison to magic here.  The comparison works because we believe in social class both collectively and individually.  We enact social class all the time, from evaluating people’s status symbols to noting differences in dialect and language. On the other hand, as a sociology instructor, I do believe that we can study social phenomena since social class becomes enacted in the world.  For example, we can use the scientific method to explore hypotheses relating to education level or income. The book also discusses the right use of power, whether it is in terms of magic itself or in every day society.  Also, a brief theme is money as power.

Due to the fact that the book is a coming of age story, there is discussion of both gender and sexual orientation.  I liked how Walton violated some of the traditional expectations for feminine gender roles for the resolution of her plot.

In terms of disability, I think that Jo Walton accomplished showing disability in a realistic way.  Mor’s disability influenced her life, but it was certainly not the only thing that defined her.  Finally, the book explored relationships.  Of course, in a book about a boarding school, you’d expect to see discussions of in-groups, out-groups, and bullying.  The book also covered the dynamics within a family and how families become comfortable in the way that they do things.

To conclude, this is an excellent coming of age story that also accomplishes exploring other themes.  The magic in it is lovely, too.  I feel like if I had read more diverse scifi, I would have understood it even better.  This didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the book, but I wonder how someone would experience reading it that didn’t have the familiarity with the books that the character was journaling on.  This book was magical, and I’ll be reading it again!

Recommended for lovers of: books, libraries, librarians, sci-fi and fantasy, coming of age stories, magic, fairies, family dynamics…

Questions that I’m left with:

(1) As an American, I wonder if the patterns presented in Walton’s book published in 2011 accurately reflected the people of the period and place(s)?  Also, are social class patterns similar today?

(2) How does this book contribute to the field of sci-fi and fantasy?  Will it engage a new generation of readers?

(3) With the changes in technology in the intervening years, how will libraries and librarians be impacted?

(4) How are good characters with disabilities written?  Do others think that she did a good job?

(5) General question: What coming of age stories resonated with you?  Why?


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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy

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