Working in the Groove

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Among Others by Jo Walton just won the Nebula Award for best novel, and Seanan McGuire (in combination with her pseudonym Mira Grant) was just nominated for four Hugo awards in one year, a new record. I figured I should take a look at Walton’s book, along with something by Grant (I ended up reading Feed), to find out what the excitement is about.

What do the two books have in common?

Working in the groove, basically. Each book traffics heavily in familiar ideas and storylines, and a large part of the pleasure of reading them can be found in the twists and turns in relation to deep and well-worn literary and/or genre grooves.

I’ll start with Feed, since it deals with the current (and, somewhat unbelievably, ongoing) zombie craze. Everyone knows how the zombie story goes: the dead start rising, they want your brains, they need to be shot in the head to go down permanently, etc. And this is a story that has been told umpteen thousand times – what possible strategy could someone use to make the storyline fresh again?

Grant uses two strategies. The first is that this particular zombie uprising is very carefully based in scientific extrapolation. Or at least “scientific” to the extent that it sounds convincing, which is probably all that’s required. The fact that this set of zombies matches what has been portrayed in George Romero movies is dealt with, in-universe, by making Romero a universal hero, and George/Georgina the most common set of names for those babies born just after the cataclysm.

That’s the other strategy: Feed is set two decades after the dead started to walk, and Grant gets a great deal of mileage out portraying what it would take to rebuild a society under these circumstances. It’s a neat twist on the post-apocalypse, wherein the apocalyptic bits have happened, but then we see the necessary precautions, everyday, everywhere, to prevent further outbreaks. If anything, this is laid on a bit thick – I got a little tired of the constant needle-checkpoints to make sure our protagonists hadn’t been zombified in the last few minutes since the last checkpoint. Then again, that’s probably the intended narrative effect, considering the world and the consequences at stake.

So far, so good for the background material. The foreground story is about a young team of bloggers who are hired to cover a presidential campaign. I dunno, this stuff was all fine, but just happened to match up with a peeve of mine… of wanting to know a lot less about American presidential politics. A fictional account of a fictional presidential nominee in a post-apocalyptic world should not have twigged this reaction! But I guess I’m really peeved or something… It’s irrational, but no thanks.

On to Among Others, which is a boarding school novel with magic. More properly, a boarding school novel, of sorts, with magic, of sorts. The qualifiers help differentiate this from Harry Potter and all the British stories that preceded it. I knew a bit about Among Others before I started reading it, but it ended up having a much different feel than I was expecting. Yes, it’s a British boarding school book, but don’t let that scare you off, jaded readers.

First of all, Walton gets really specific with time and place. This is Wales, 1979, and the locale and the time period are furnished in great detail. It makes a great story that’s, paradoxically, more universal in feel than the vaguely Londonish jumping-off points of the Harry Potter stories.

Secondly, this is a book that positions itself very deliberately in the community of books and readers. Our narrator, Mori, is in love with books and reads constantly. She gets a library card in town because she has already read all the good stuff in her school library. She reads because she doesn’t fit in, and she also reads because it’s incredibly awesome to jump into a good book. All things that will be familiar, in part or in whole, to bookworms around the world. By way of Mori’s dissection and reaction to the stacks of books she is reading, Among Others gets a lot of its energy and structure from other books, and contributes a lot of energy in return to those books. For example, I’ve always been a bit indifferent about the Scouring of the Shire (the part left out of the Lord of the Rings movies where the hobbits return to find their homeland turned into a wasteland); here Mori uses it describe her current state of mind after a family tragedy. Not something I had thought about before, and it’s a nice readerly flourish for a very readerly book.

I haven’t read any of the other Grant/McGuire books so I can’t comment on her Hugo nods or on her other books. I reviewed Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw here on the Gutter a few years ago, and I’ve read at least one or two entries in her Farthing series. Both authors keep up a fairly active online presence, with McGuire and Walton both on LiveJournal (Rose-Owls and Pumpkin Girls and Bluejo respectively) and Walton contributes prolifically to Tor.com.

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