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[personal profile] jack
I'm not quite sure I have this right, but as I recall it, Jo's amazing Among Others has the concept of magic which change things, but only things you didn't already know. Eg. not usually this blatant, but something like, if you dug up a sealed box, you could make it contain anything you wanted, but if you just closed up an empty box, you couldn't. The isolated semi-autobiographical protagonist uses it to find friends and supporters, and in defeating malicious machinations from her mother.

You almost might say, it's a formalisation of how magic works vaguely in some other stories, of being able to do anything but not pushing things too far...

Critical reception

I'm not quite sure if I have this right, but I remember many people loving the book, both geeks and more mainstream and literary critics, but there was a tendency for some people to interpret the magic as a literary convention, "may all be in the protagonists head". But IIRC Jo said, no, as far as she's concerned, everything the protagonist describes really happened in the book.

And I sympathise, it's very annoying when people say "hey, look at this thing in your book" and it's just no -- even if it's interesting, it's still annoying.

Although I think it's really interesting that that interpretation was possible, even though there are difficulties with it.

My response

What I looked at is, how does the story work, if you assume it's real? And if you assume it isn't? If you assume it's real, the story has a natural flow, like many other protagonist-leaves-abusive-and-or-magical-home-learns-to-live-in-real-world-but-has-to-return-for-showdown stories, of ebbs and flows, crests and troughs, triumphs and setbacks.

Whereas if you assume that everything magic is imagined, some parts of the story work well in a different way: protagonist escaping from home, finally meeting friends in fandom, etc. And others work but are massively depressing (effort, time, risk and sacrifice wasted on spells that do nothing). I prefer the less depressing version of the story! But I understand some people prefer the more introspectiony version, and there's other books where the straightforward reading is clearly not a useful one, but the introspective, depressing one is much more interesting (even if I might not have liked it as much at the time).

But some parts read something like "protagonist has delusions and gets some people killed, then experiences delusions for several more chapters". The content of the delusions doesn't really matter, there's no tension "will the protagonist escape them somehow" or "will the protagonist find a way to live with them". That reading just seems to make it kind of pointless?

Magic system

Moving back from literary criticism to magic and philosophy, it occurs to me, I don't know if this would work in the book, but in some ways the magic system as I described it IS like our understanding of the world. In that some things we can't test directly, but CAN be fairly sure of. Like, if you roll a dice in a covered box where you can't see, you could in theory choose the outcome to be "1". But if you do that twenty times and get twenty ones, then even though any individual throw could equally well have turned out like that by chance, twenty 1s on the trot is pretty clear that you're doing SOMETHING.

In fact, presumably this IS the protagonist's experience, that she has tried this on a lot of different things and it DOES work every time and that's much more than could be explained by coincidence. And that's how she describes it to the reader. But only as the book progresses does the reader have enough evidence to start believing of their own knowledge (since the protagonist is persuasive, but in the real world, lots of careful, methodical people believe they've seen something that can't be coincidence, when to someone else, it looks like it almost certainly is coincidence).

Date: 2015-06-23 03:03 pm (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
But only as the book progresses does the reader have enough evidence to start believing of their own knowledge

I think my problem with this is that as the novel progresses, the 'magic' that Mor starts to see is bigger in scope and implication than previous magic she's performed, so that rather than slowly accepting our way into Mor's interpretation of the magic, we're asked to take larger and larger leaps alongside her without having accepted her initial premise.

The karass spell requires an awful lot of the world to have been reshaped, way more than anything Mor had previously seen. So much so that Mor is reluctant to believe in its reality, especially since the whole reason Among Others is so popular is that most of us in the SFF community have found our karass without any kind of spell (afaik ;) ), so that it would be a perfectly reasonable thing to happen on its own.

Which perhaps leads me to the conclusion that maybe some of Mor's magic works, and sometimes it's just coincidence. This seems reasonable to me given the magic system, but it makes it even harder to validate in any kind of scientific or pseudoscientific confirmational method.