OK, since I missed last year’s Worldcon, I didn’t have to read all the nominees, but I did pick up 2012’s Hugo winner, Jo Walton’s Among Others, and I finished reading it last night. The story is relatively simple, really. A young Welsh woman escapes from her abusive and insane Mother after a horrible accident led to her being crippled and the death of her twin sister, only to be sent to an unpleasantly bland boarding school by the father who abandoned her as an infant and her aunts that control her father’s life. Oh, and there’s magic, and fairies, and a truly staggering, overwhelming litany of references to SF novels. It’s also semi-autobiographical; while the protagonist Morwenna is obviously not Jo Walton they are the same age, were born in the same place, and went through very similar life events at the same time in their lives including dealing with disability and social adjustment issues at a boarding school in Shropshire.
This is…a polarizing novel. Obviously a great many people absolutely loved it; it won the Hugo and had a favorable critical reception…but most of my friends hate it. Not just find it not to their taste, they really loathe it. Personally I found it blandly inoffensive. I would say it’s the least of Jo’s works that I’ve read, but not without charm. It has two great flaws, really. Firstly, the climactic ending scene feels completely tacked on and way out of scale to the rest of the book, although some of its emotional themes are well arranged. Secondly, and for most people I feel certain more critically, much of the book feels like an attempt to simply mention as many SF novels as possible within a limited number of pages while still providing some bare minimum narrative framework around them.
Now that may not be unrealistic in the slightest; I feel certain that if I were to have written a diary at that age it would have similarly gone on about whatever I was reading at the time…but it really feels self-indulgent and perhaps even braggadocious here, as well as causing other issues. For example, I’ve never read any Vonnegut novels because he’s not to my taste, so the constant references to a “karass,” a fictitious element of a fictitious religion from one of his novels, were incredibly offputting. I can’t imagine how frustrating this book would have been to read without ready access to the internet to look stuff like that up.
There’s a meta-contextual issue, here. In the context of a diary of a fanatical SF reader, all that makes sense. In the context of a book being evaluated by SF fans for the acclamation of their highest award…it feels manipulative. Pandering. I don’t think that’s really fair, because I know Jo and I’ve no doubt whatsoever that she wrote this novel as a reminiscent self-indulgence without ever even considering that it might get nominated for the award, but once all of this hardcore nostalgia and name-dropping gets put into that context it’s hard not to think of it as award bait in a similar tradition to dramatic roles portraying the mentally disabled are considered to be with regards to the Academy Awards. I’ve not read any of the other nominees from last year, I’m afraid, so I can’t say it with certainty, but I don’t think this would have gotten my vote.