Reading: Jo Walton — My Real Children

Jo Walton’s Among Others was my fiction Book of the Year in 2012. A new author for me then, when I was consciously moving to read women sci-fi and fantasy authors and trying to expand beyond my triumvirate of Iain Banks, China Miéville, and Charles Stross. Among Others was a work that barely seemed fantasy from the perspective of the narrative, yet the way of writing belonged undoubtably to that, even if ignoring the sublime homage that it is to libraries and science-fiction and fantasy from the ’60s and ’70s.

Surprisingly for me, I hadn’t then gone on to order all of Walton’s previous works, but as soon as I found out she had a new one coming out, I placed it on pre-order. My Real Children arrived on my bookshelf a while ago, though I’ve only now begun it. I have to dispense with the cover first.

Dasniya looked at it, then me, with a look of ‘What on earth are you reading? I hope you’re not going Romance Novel on me.’ I cringed. I cringed when I saw it in Saint George’s also. It is truly horrible in a sepia stock art and Photoshop text gradient way, long before taking in the image itself. A willowy young woman, superimposed over herself in two different poses, lace dress exposing the back of her neck and arms. Lens flare. Yes, lens flare. I’m surprised there’s not a delicate downy feather floating somewhere. It does a massive disservice to the book, even though it’s the story of a woman whose life seems to have split into two histories some time post-World War Two.

Compare it with the hard skiffy of Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice cover done by artist John Harris, a cover that recognises the content within, represents it uniquely, and even celebrates it, knowing what a substantial work it is and proud to say so. Walton’s – and I’ve only begun reading it – I suspect in its own way is no less substantial; she is a formidable writer and storyteller, yet the cover is a careless throwaway, disrespectful to both the writing and the author. It’s also condescending: fantasy is feminine and doesn’t need care or attention. Admittedly also Leckie’s cover plays into the hard sci-fi trope of masculine covers; contra that I could argue it represents its place in the history of hard sci-fi and space opera, and acknowledges the authors and artists that come before by having such a cover, as well as accurately portraying the spacecraft in the story. Walton’s cover does no such thing. Such a cover does not contain the possibility of Miami being nuked, which certainly happens somewhere in the story.

Perhaps my grudge here is that there is a potential (and real in at least my case) audience for My Real Children that is identical to that of Ancillary Justice, but the cover is a very hard barrier to the audience of the latter picking it up (metaphorically or actually), and this barrier is rooted in what I can only describe as misogyny. And quite frankly, any publisher that hasn’t been following the past couple of years of what’s been going on on this topic in sci-fi and fantasy, done some serious reconsidering, and worked to address these problems has not been doing their job and deserves to be fired.

It’s curious for me that when I write about a book lately, I spend so much time on the cover. I love a good cover. I love seeing its spine on my bookshelf, the specific colour, font, paper, texture making it unique, and an especially good cover for me makes the book itself even better because it shows that somehow in the process of publishing it they got it right, and they really care about the book. A good cover is a work of love. (An aside: Walton writes about the various covers for Among Others.)

So, in the pages then. An old woman suffering from dementia, who imagines two different histories, and the changing physical structure of the home she lives in seems to bear out this reality. Or perhaps it’s just the confusion. We follow her back through time to post-war Oxford, where she is a contemporary of Wittgenstein. Yes, this is Walton at her most beloved for me. I’m reminded also of Iain Banks’ Transition. Besides her writing and choice of words, I am drawn to her for the small stories she tells. It’s not Rajaniemi’s solar system-spanning apocalypse with whole planets dropping into black holes, nor is the entirety of humanity and all life on earth at stake (despite Miami), yet there is a vastness in her stories of a single person, and remain science-fiction, and beautifully written science-fiction at that.

I have a short pause the next three days, so I am dedicating myself to single-mindedly enjoy one of the best authors around. It’s unlikely to shunt Ancillary Justice off my Book of the Year pedestal, but highly probably they’ll be sharing it.