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March 26th, 2011

gfish: (Default)
Saturday, March 26th, 2011 09:16 pm
Diana Wynne Jones died last night, which really officially makes too much death going around in case you had any doubts. Dammit.

My local library's collection wasn't particularly great, but I read everything of hers that they had. She was probably best known for Howl's Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci books. All excellent books that I have enjoyed rereading many times, but they weren't the ones that really stuck with me. As my own awkward little tribute I thought I'd go over the weird, sometimes disturbing books of her that I really loved.

A Tale of Time City: While evacuating the blitz, a girl is accidentally taken to Time City, which exists on a small chunk of time isolated from the main flow of history. (I swear, based on my childhood reading there was no better way to find yourself in a fantastical situation than to be a child evacuated during the blitz. The only thing that comes close is to attend a boarding school -- something I actually wanted to do as a kid, at least in part for this reason.) The city is dying, as the time it lives in has been reused too many time and has to be replenished. She has to help uncover the secrets of the people who originally built the place, looking for their artifacts through the use of an illicit time machine. Like so much of Jones' work, it's the mythos and sense of location that works so well. There is an entire 10,000 year future history embedded in this work, serving mostly as a background for the events in timeless Time City.

Dogsbody: The star Sirius is framed of murder. As a punishment, he is banished into the body of a dog, and has just that short lifespan in which to recover the "Zoi", the murder weapon/McGuffin which fell to Earth. He is helped by the girl who raises him, as well as our own sun and the hounds of the Welsh god of the underworld. Like so many good books, it just sounds weird when you describe it. And it is weird. But it works so well all the same.

Homeward Bounders: There are great powers which play games -- literal games -- with the worlds of the multiverse. If you ever catch them doing it, you will be expelled from the games and your homeworld. You can't die, but neither can you interact with the worlds you pass in anything by the most superficial way. You have to keep wandering from world to world, trying to get home, stuck in whatever the local form of the game takes. Some are global mechanized conflicts, others are D&D worlds full of monsters. Some are radioactive wastelands, and while the Homeward Bounders can't die, the radiation sickness is still debilitating while it lasts. Prometheus makes an appearance. It's spooky and weird and every world described is terribly evocative.

All of these, I kind of now realize, are special because of how they effortless combine fantasy, science fiction and mythology. (Or at least an epic, mythic feel.) I think that is what I always appreciated most about her. Lots of stories have fantastic things happening, sometimes to otherwise normal people in what is supposed to be the normal world, but it's never completely convincing to me. The world I see, while amazing and fascinating and terribly vast and ancient, just isn't a fantasy world. Fantasy concepts are fun, but for me they fundamentally don't resolve as something a real universe could be based around. Very few books have properly fantastic things happening seamlessly in a world conceived and described in the kind of scientific, materialistic terms I'm most comfortable with. The only other author I can think of who can do this is, of course, Diane Duane, and she's coming at it from the other direction. (Science fiction in terms of fantasy instead of fantasy in terms of science fiction.) It was a rare, magical gift, and it will be sorely missed.