Ready Player One. Both are novels with strong sf elements about young people overcoming rotten childhoods and doing so with the aid of science fiction media. Both novels are extremely nostalgic, and the timing isn’t that far apart (Ready Player One is obsessed with the 80s as a whole, though leaning towards the middle of the decade, Among Others takes place from fall of 1979 to spring of 1980, though it's more nostalgic for the books of the ‘60s and ‘70s). It’d be easy to make some grand pronouncement about generational shifts, or sf eating itself, or memoir bleeding into genre…or something. All that said, Among Others is a very different book from Ready Player One, and I think it’s a nice commentary on the diversity of the genre that Cline and Walton were obsessed with sf around the same time but had very little crossover in interests (Walton’s not so into the video games, the tv, and the movie films, though I’d argue, as a book lover who’s not fond of book snobbery, that Cline’s days in the arcade, and Walton’s science fiction book club probably served a lot of the same purposes for them).
In 1979, a fifteen-year-old Welsh girl named Morwenna runs away from home and finds herself in the custody of a father she has never known. Her wealthy aunts decide to send her to boarding school, where she is the unpopular new kid, though Walton nicely avoids piling on Dickensian melodrama and instead shows us a teenager who is simply not very popular, which certainly makes her relatable to much of this novel’s audience. Morwenna finds refuge in science fiction novels and eventually discovers a cohort of like-minded bookworms. It’s a gentle coming-of-age story peppered with commentary on the popular sf novels of the age. I imagine that there’s a fair amount of autobiography here as well, considering that the author was a fifteen-year-old science-fiction-adoring Welsh girl herself in 1979 (there were echoes of Walton’s Hugo blogging series here – fans of those posts should check out the novel and vice versa).
Oh yes, the fantasy twist. Morwenna is the daughter of a witch, she can see fairies, and she can cast spells herself. I’m very fond of the way Walton works this in. There are some pretty passages that meld fairies with the post-industrial Welsh landscape (check out the first pages for one of the best examples), Morwenna frets a bit about the ethics of magic, and there is something of a fantastic climax, but, for the most part, the fantasy elements are in the background. In fact, the most dramatic confrontation, in which Morwenna’s twin sister is killed in an attempt to stop the evil magic of their witch mother, occurs before the novel starts and is usually referred to only obliquely.
The more I think about it, the more I suspect that Morwenna is an unreliable narrator with an overactive imagination. There are subtle clues that suggest this: magic works purely by coincidence, not many people see fairies (you have to believe!). I think I’d need to reread the novel to find more. That said, Walton doesn’t underline that question and avoids the tired “I swear it was real!” fantasy trope. It doesn’t matter if it’s real, because it’s a real component of how the narrator experiences or processes the world around her.
This is a really charming novel, and it’s the type of book that I like more as I write about it, which is always a good sign. Is it Hugo-winner worthy? That’s a tougher question, especially since the speculative elements are so light. I almost wish it could win "related works." I am leaning towards it though - I'll talk more about my pick for winner soon.