How Do I Like Jo Walton’s Among Others? Let me count the ways…


So I recently had the pleasure of listening to Hugo Award Winner, Among Others by Jo Walton. I really enjoyed it – as I write below, it kind of hit the spot for me. It was lyrically written, the narrator’s voice was a precocious 15 year-old. All good. But it was more than that. Allow me to elaborate:

  1. 1970s science fiction: The book is first a lit review of the stuff I grew up reading. The main character is excited for the Heinlein novel, Number of the Beast. I remember my dad buying it. She loves Roger Zelazny, who I never really read, but maybe I should.
  2. England: The book is set in England, which I always enjoy. Canadian and Australian fiction I usually grasp seamlessly (not that I don’t appreciate the different perspectives). But England is just a bit different, in fiction these differences are usually illuminated. At one point, the main character discusses class, an English obsession that is at best translucent to outsiders, in a way that makes sense. 
  3. Jews: When I read fiction by Jewish authors in which Jewish characters are prominent (I love Saul Bellow and just finished Phillip Roth’s classic Portnoy’s Complaint) it is a world I know. I’m at home among the cantankerous uncles and provincial small businessmen. But I am intrigued when non-Jewish authors have major Jewish characters. In the last installment of Updike’s Rabbit series, Harry Angstrom had retired to Florida, where all of his neighbors in the condo are Jewish. In Among Others the main character’s father (who she had never met before) turned out to have a Jewish father. So she gets to know her Jewish grandfather and a Jewish classmate (whose kosher meals look far more appetizing than the school’s dismal fare.) At one point, she is in a spot of trouble that is partially magical and doesn’t know quite what to do. In desperation, she phones her grandfather (who she’s only just met) and he instantly understands. He travels to see her and smooths things over. He blesses her in Hebrew, which the main character doesn’t understand. Of course I know the blessing – I recite it over my children every Friday night when the sun has gone down. In the book it seems to help. And that leads into what I really like:
  4. Magic! Magic in fiction ranges from Harry Potteresque in which it is effectively an alternative technology. People who have access to it can do incredible things. No one really understands its nature, but they have a pretty good understanding of how it works. On the other end of the spectrum is the Canadian magical realism of Robertson Davies in which there is just a hint of something other-worldly. There is a vast range in between these two poles from more magical magic realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez to magical worlds like MiddleEarth or Narnia where magic clearly exists but is not a carefully fleshed out system. I prefer my magic to be vague, mysterious, and well magical. I like the idea that there is a bit more to the world than we see – but I’m not seeing ghosts or fairies. There is a touch of dramatic magic, but mostly it is subtle – just a way of smoothing things in a particular direction, where they really want to go. (Fans of Davies Deptford Trilogy will recognize this trope.)
My regular readers (should I have any) know that magic has been on my mind lately. I am not big on the supernatural. So I’m not heading into a belief in spirits or elves or crystals. I’m pretty lined up with the rational. And yet…

When I think about the power of our emotions to move us, or bind us in knots and then – even more incredibly our ability to propel these feelings into the world and move others… even centuries later! I lose the ability to write complete sentences.

I enjoy Myers-Briggs tests. I know they have been proven to be fundamentally inaccurate. What they are is modern astrology. Fine, and like astrology, they are fun, and in providing a framework (even a flawed one) – assuming it isn’t being used by a charlatan but rather the stranger who takes your life seriously they are useful. I always came out as an ENTP. I just took one and came out as an ENFP. I’m Extraverted, Intuitive, and Perceiving. That’s me. But in the past I came out as a Thinker, who prized and employed reason. Now I’m a Feeler, at least according to a test that took my 8 minutes on the Internet and that I already knew how it worked.

So, I’m thinking about magic. I’m going through stuff (not bad stuff, just stuff). And I happen to listen to a book about magic that frames it in terms that work for me, that clarifies some things.

Years ago I listened to The Lost Painting, about a Caravaggio painting that had been lost, but re-emerged. Somehow, when the painting surfaced in Dublin, at the same time some important scholarly information emerged in Italy that allowed the finders to prove the paintings provenance. Coincidence? Maybe. You could argue that for every instance of great work re-emerging, many are lost. As we enter the era of big data, perhaps data mining will reveal these kinds of finds all the time.

Or maybe, Caravaggio’s deep feelings – the feelings that allowed him to paint such masterpieces – were placed into that painting and give it a certain energy. What is a painting? It is a bunch of chemicals applied to a canvas. Yet, the great painters do this in such a way that they can evoke feelings centuries later. How is that not magic? Is it too much to think that this painting, like Smeagol’s Ring, could somehow (despite being submerged for eons) force its way out and re-emerge.

That somehow, there are deeper forces at work, patterns, networks of energy below the surface… magic!

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