Saturday, January 14, 2012

Space needs women

A batch of books on my hold list all came available at once: Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (the second Hunger Games Book), and Among Others by Jo Walton. The first two books are young adult (YA) and the third is about a young adult, although it is ostensibly aimed towards regular adults. A lot of the interesting stuff by women in the speculative fiction space these days is being done in YA, which is different from it was back when I was the target market. For example, there is sex now, and sex that isn't automatically used as a warning about teen pregnancy or Something Awful.

Still, there are YA books that don't really hold up to adult reading as well (I'd say Cinder belongs here) and those that do (the Harry Potter series). Then there are adult books about teenagers that can be enjoyably read by young adults (Sunshine) and those that probably shouldn't or can't (Hogg comes to mind).

Walton's book is an oddity, though. I should mention that her Farthing is quite brilliant, and I would recommend starting there. None of her books are YA, but as I read Among Others, I couldn't figure out why it wasn't marketed as such. It's the story of a 15-year-old girl who, after her twin sister dies and she runs away from her mother, ends up in a posh English boarding school. Our heroine - Welsh, bookish, and crippled by the event that killed her sister - is an outcast in a place where social success means adhering closely to conventional mores and the school's culture, which revolves around sports. Eventually (spoiler alert!) she makes friends with one sympathetic adult at the school and finds free-thinking friends outside of it, including a young man who becomes her boyfriend.

The book reminded me strongly of Madeleine L'Engle's And Both Were Young.* I highly doubt plagiarism has anything to do with it; it's more a matter of what a certain kind of school was (or is?) like for an bookish, aspiring writer. Unlike ABWY, where the heroine secretly develops a talent for skiing, Walton's protagonist was a sports aficionado before being injured, and her taste in books runs to SF.

There's an irony in both novels that the heroine, who is into books and doesn't whip out her compact the moment she leaves the campus grounds, who looks down upon her superficial peers for their boy-craziness, ends up finding true teen love - at least, a relationship that is still happily intact on the final page. Because I guess women need men? In some ways, Among Others has a strange tone of misogyny. Our heroine's boyfriend seems like a jerk to me, even after the "misunderstanding" that makes him an outsider has been cleared up to her satisfaction. I couldn't tell, based on the first-person narrative, if we were supposed to see through her rose-colored vision of him or whether the author intended for us to cheer them on.

The book reinforces, unintentionally I think, some gender cliches. Witches are female-only, and, whether they are trying to become evil queens or simply keep their conventional lives squarely conventional, their effects are bad. Non-witches are just conventional and uninteresting. Men are either misunderstood (her boyfriend) or oppressed by women (her dad). Fantasy is the province of women, and sci-fi that of men, and in the end, she chooses the latter. It's not quite as neat as all that: Fantasy aligns with women, but she loves (male) Tolkien, and we can see her nascent recognition of sexism at work in the SF book club she joins. Then there's the fact that her father attempts to sexually assault her at one point. This doesn't seem to affect her relationship with him - maybe after your mother has tried to kill you, it wouldn't seem like much - but it didn't encourage me to join Team Masculine.

The thing is, having read some of Walton's other books and many of her columns on, I am quite certain Walton is not sexist or trying to prop up tired gender stereotypes. And when I did a brief survey of book reviews (one Google search-results page deep), I didn't see anyone else mentioning any of this. They focused on whether she nailed the voice of a teenager, whether not having read the SF novels she voraciously devours is a problem, and whether the plot falls a little flat. (My answers? Yes, probably, and yes again.) Which leaves me not knowing what to do with my observations. To what extent are we supposed to see more than the heroine does and reach different conclusions?** I am a reasonably observant reader, but hardly more perspicacious than WaPo reviewers or fans geeking out at the exhaustive sci-fi backcatalog listed in the book's pages.

[Insert something about Stanley Fish and reader-response theory here, just so you know I'm down like that.]

Seriously, though, the book left me confounded - not in intellectually pleasurable way of solving an author's puzzle, but unsure of whether the author was in control of her material.

*If you see the cover I linked to and have read the book, you'll probably be enraged. Why on earth do publishers put pictures of people that are clearly contemporary on novels that took place over 50 years ago? But notice what happens if you "Look Inside" at the cover.
**The only review I saw that delved into that vein at all only suggested that perhaps the "magic" was all in her imagination, since there was no proof anyone else could see it. This struck me as way off-base, since her boyfriend does see the fairies.

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