I’ve been a Jo Walton fan for a while—all of her books are quite good, and Tooth and Claw is rather wonderful book if you’re a fan of Victorian novels and dragons—but Lifelode got to me in a way that none of her previous novels did. It’s a fantasy novel, and makes contact with many standard fantasy tropes; but those tropes are addressed in a way that’s always at least slightly askew, in a way that I found refreshing and fascinating. And there’s quite a bit in the book that I’m not familiar with at all in terms of standard fantasy tropes.
I think what got to me the most was its take on seeing the future in the form of viewing multiple possible appearances/actions that a person might have. (Will have? I’m fairly sure that they’re presented as possibilities in the book, but I could be wrong.) It’s not emphasized in the book (indeed, one of its strengths, like any good fantastical work, is the strength of the world-building in directions that aren’t the main themes of the book) but these views of the future directly ties into my brain’s current obsession with contingency. I think I’ll write a separate post about that one, though, because my response to this aspect of the book has rather more to do with where my brain is than with the book. (In particular, my brain right now is at least as focused on contingency in the past as on the future.)
Then there’s the title concept of a ‘lifelode’, a sort of true calling. Which is a little bit of a banal idea, and one that smacks too much of the notion of “hero of destiny” that infects fantasy literature. (And science fiction, and video games.) The good thing about Lifelode‘s approach to the concept is that it accepts a wide range of possible lifelodes as equally worthy: for example, looking after a household or making pots are as respected lifelodes as anything else. Also, the book at least addresses the possibility of people coming late to an understanding of what their lifelode might be; which is good, because if you’d asked me what mine would be, there are decades when being a math professor would have been the answer, which in retrospect has clearly proven not to be the case.
Partly because of that last experience, this is perhaps the area of the book that I’m mostly dubious about: I fear that it smacks of an essentialism that can be actively harmful. But it’s also one that I find seductive, and that I don’t understand at all in the context of my own life: I’m fairly sure that there’s a certain coherence in my activities and interests (both in my various employments and my various outside interests) that hints at a lifelode of sorts, but I’m not sure exactly how to put my finger on it, or indeed whether it would be an actively good idea to put my finger on it. And I’m also not sure whether analyzing that coherence in terms of a lifelode would be useful, harmful, a curiosity, or a distraction! So: lifelodes are something my brain likes thinking about right now, but is that good?
I support rather more unconditionally the book’s openness towards relationship possibilities: a society accepting of both primary marriages and very strong side relationships, of communication among the various parties necessary to make that work, and also the way the book nonetheless showed the unquestioned love, devotion, and focus from another that we all need sometimes. Side relationships are not, in general, the way my brain works at all, but I was thinking some about what ‘family’ meant a few months ago; that context has waned and that part of my brain has calmed down quite a bit since then, but still: I like to see an open discussion/acceptance of more possibilities of what it means to be a family.
Also, on the relationship note: one character gets described as “flirting as easily as he breathes” partway through the book, in a context that points out how unusual that is within the village where the book takes place. Which really struck me because I hadn’t noticed his behavior being all that unusual, and it made me realize that I’m more blind to certain aspects of “men hitting on women” behavior than I’d like to be. And also got me thinking about my own flirtatious behaviour: flirting was, for better or for worse, something that I think I basically didn’t do at all back when I was in search of relationships (and, to the extent I did it, I’m positive I was horrible at it); it’s something I do more now in a few contexts, with a few people—it’s fun and is essentially a zero-pressure activity for me now that I have no desire for anything at all to come out of it—and I suspect that, with the right sort of person, I’m probably no longer tragically awful at it? (I could easily be wrong on that latter bit; I suspect I would be awful at it with most people, and that I’d be rather worse at it if it mattered to me now, but that’s fine.) But reading that line in the book makes me wonder: do I flirt more often now than I think of myself as doing?
And then there’s the whole concept of moods. In the book, moods are presented, in part, as being brought through the air; also, it’s possible to set up defenses against being overly affected by these airborne moods. Which is a lovely idea, concretizing the notion of being swept away by an unwelcome mood (or a welcome but unexpected one!) for no clear reason, and of realizing that you’re acting in a way that you’d rather not be and trying to figure out what to do about it. These airborne moods are, at least at times, sent by gods (or by people acting on behalf of gods); I really like how the concept of personified gods seems like one end of the normal fantasy spectrum as you start the book, but then the personified gods turn out to be less and less like what the word ‘personified’ would make you think even as the book shows you more and more of how people become gods. (And that’s also tied to an unusual feature of the world’s geometry—there’s a bit of a Flatland, or really more Sphereland, vibe to the book as well.)
Like most fantasy novels, it talks about changes of an excessively cataclysmic nature, but here too it comes at it from an unusual nature: on the one hand, presenting these changes as part of an ongoing rhythm (so more a vibe of Buddhist changes of eras than a climactic victory of good or evil versus the other), but also shows how these changes can be delayed and caused to take uncommon courses without negating the idea entirely. Huge changes in fantasy novels generally have a strong martial feel; in Lifelode, though, that martial feel takes an Aikido vibe, with an emphasis on redirection rather than blocking/counterattacking (and also rather than evading them completely, of course), and with the acceptance of circularity.
A short book (which is refreshing for a fantasy novel in of itself!), but one where every ten pages turned up an idea that was both interestingly unusual for the genre and tied into something that I’d been thinking about.
After which, I decided I’d been remiss in reading Walton’s recent work, so I decided to catch up and go through Among Others as well. Which was a delight from start to finish: I ended up livetweeting my reading (and being gratified by how many of the people I know like quotes that speak favorably of interlibrary loans), because I don’t think I’ve ever read a book which speaks so directly to the experience of being a (very!) bookish teenager in the late 70’s. (I wasn’t a teenager by then, but I was close enough that the literary references were almost all familiar.) And, specifically, a bookish teenager whose tastes run strongly towards fantasy and science fiction but who is willing to dive into other specific recommendations, including those from adults you meet whose tastes you learn to trust.
Here, by ‘specifically’, I mean: author after author is mentioned, book after book, including the delights of discovering a wonderful book by a new author, learning that they’ve written more, finding somebody to talk about that author, and going to the library and checking out another ten of their books. (Or: putting in an interlibrary loan request for every single one of that author’s books.) All sorts of wonderful little touches, like the protagonist’s enjoyment of Tiptree, then discovering 50 pages later than Tiptree was a woman, and her having opinions about specific Tiptree stories instead of about Tiptree in the abstract; or her giving Plato a try on the recommendation of a (much) older friend, really liking the Symposium but being more dubious about the Republic, and relating the latter to The Dispossessed and Triton. It’s one thing to recognize a similarity of feelings and experiences in the abstract; but it seemed like on every page of this book I’d run into a specific artistic encounter that I went through myself 25 years ago. Amazing.
This post has not been revised since publication.