Escapism is good for your health: March Magics

Well, I’m quite sure we could all use some cheering up right now, so it’s the perfect time to celebrate March Magics – thanks to Kristen from We Be Reading who has hosted the event (originally DWJ March) for umpteen years. As we hole up avoiding dangerous germs, and tear our hair about other dire situations, we can at least escape to some magical worlds thanks to the wonderful works of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones.

To me, this is a healthy form of escapism because both authors were keenly aware of the negative side of life, of the injustice, stupidity, hypocrisy and malice that cause such chaos and harm in our world. Their stories are an imaginative response to the question of how we can meet such challenges — with courage, with determination, and above all, with a sense of humor.

So far, I’ve read two books that reminded me how valuable this is. Terry Pratchett’s A Blink of the Screen is his collected shorter fiction, which doesn’t mean all short stories. He says short stories “cost him blood” and he’s only produced about 15 or so. I think they may all be in this volume, starting with the very first story he sold at the age of 13 (he’s embarrassed by its inclusion but it’s surprisingly good), and rounded out by miscellaneous “squibs” that include the Ankh-Morporkh national anthem, a fictional biography of an unknown nobleman in the National Portrait Gallery, and even text for a set of Discworld trading cards.

It’s a buoyantly eclectic collection that fitted my scattered attention span, and could be recommended for those who have yet to try Pratchett and don’t want to commit to a whole novel. The longest story, “The Sea and Little Fishes,” features one of my favorite Discworld characters, the archwitch Granny Weatherwax, and slyly explores the theme of real goodness/badness vs. the appearance thereof. It’s one of Pratchett’s recurring themes, but while in his novels he sometimes belabors the point, this is a snappily paced piece with enough development to be satisfying — so it’s really too bad he didn’t write more short stories in this vein.

I skipped a couple of the pieces (more SF/cyberpunk-oriented) that weren’t my style, but enjoyed some of the shorter pieces that take a “what if” sort of idea and run with it — like a based-on-a-true story speculation about how the chicken crossed the road, and a vignette imagining what it would be like to be trapped in a series of sentimental Christmas cards. I was impressed once more at how Pratchett can write books and stories that are light but not lightweight, intelligent without being dreary, and alive to the magic of language and storytelling. So whether you’re already a fan or not, I think it’s worth picking up and browsing. If you do, be sure to let me know which were your favorites.

Extremely ugly cover on my edition – Don’t let it put you off

I also reread The Homeward Bounders, which I believe is the first book in which Diana Wynne Jones plays with the idea of multiple universes that she so brilliantly explores in other writings. It’s a small book full of big ideas, starting with one that doesn’t seem so fantastic these days: what if the world is a game being played by powerful entities who keep themselves invisible? And how can we free ourselves from this manipulation, and take back reality for ourselves?

The storyteller is Jamie, a boy who chanced on the game-players (known only as Them) and was cursed to “walk the bounds,” moving from world to world without ever entering play. He’s given the hope that he may return home, though, and hope is an anchor … for what, exactly, only comes clear at the end.

Those final pages go by quickly, in the author’s typically headlong ending style, and belie their philosophical depth, leaving readers still with questions to ponder. We don’t get a conventionally reassuring conclusion, but I think it’s all the better for teen (and adult) readers to have to grapple with in our troubled times. It came as something of a shock for me on a first reading; now, seeing how it’s foreshadowed from the first page, I can only feel how inevitable and right it is.

As I read I also remembered my fondness for the characters: Joris the hero-worshipping demon hunter; Adam, the “posh boy” who gets in a bit over his head; and especially bad-tempered Helen, who hides behind her hair, loves creepy critters, and has a “deformity” that could save the world. Then there is Jamie himself, who on his wanderings through the worlds  becomes an stand-in for our own search for home, the elusive place where we belong.

Is it a hopeless quest? That depends on how you look at it. As always, I’m grateful to have my perspective widened, my imagination stretched, and my world expanded by such a venture into the fantastic. It’s the best medicine I can think of right now.

What have you read, or would like to read, for March Magics?

March Magics: The True State of Affairs

It’s the magical month of March — time to celebrate two favorite fantasy authors, Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, thanks to Kristen of We Be Reading who hosts March Magics each year. It’s a free-form event this time — read and post whatever and whenever you like, but be sure to visit Kristen’s blog to see what she’s up to, and connect with other fans.

This year, the selected theme is “Nothing but the shorts,” focusing on the dozens of short stories penned between the two authors. Because of my current book acquisition ban, I’m limited to the books I have on hand — and I have no stories by Terry Pratchett, and only a few by Diana Wynne Jones. So I decided to reread my copy of Everard’s Ride, a book I cherish not so much because it’s a rather valuable signed limited edition, as because it’s proof that an underrated master was finally getting some well-deserved recognition with this special production (done for the 1995 Boskone conference at which she was guest of honor).

But I also cherish it because it has one story that for some reason was never republished anywhere else, in the many confusingly overlapping compilations and anthologies of DWJ stories. And within this story is a poem I love, one of the few poems I’ve seen by her — though surely she must have written some for her own pleasure, if nothing else. At almost 100 pages, “The True State of Affairs” is more of a novella than a story, perhaps a discarded early draft for a novel. It feels unfinished, at any rate, frustratingly fragmentary — no explanation is given for the protagonist apparently being transported from modern England to a place bearing some resemblance to the universe of the Dalemark series — and tantalizingly lacking in closure.

I love it, though, because it’s a story about the risky business of expressing and defining and discovering ourselves through language. It’s written by a prisoner on scraps begged from her jailer, a prisoner who doesn’t understand the circumstances of her imprisonment, but who has to try to comprehend her predicament, remember who she is, and keep herself from going mad. In other words, it’s about life. What is the true state of affairs, for any of us?

Truth is the fire that fetches thunder
Kindled of itself, and only mine
In the heart that had its fashioning.

Looking out from her confinement, she sees another captive, and weaves stories about him that may or may not be true. From this she enters into a clandestine correspondence that leads her into further danger, emotional as well as physical. Who can say what really lives inside another person? What is truth — in our perceptions, in our ideas?

In this strange, ambiguous tale, with its uncharacteristically bleak ending, Diana Wynne Jones captures something of the mystery of self and other, without reaching any easy or comfortable conclusions. As with all of her work, she reminds me that each one of us human beings is a story in the process of being told, and makes me want to listen.

What do you plan to read this month? What are your favorite stories by these authors?

March Magics guest post

Today, I’m pleased to be taking part in the Diana Wynne Jones March / March Magics event, hosted once more this year by We Be Reading. I offered to write a post on Three Diana Wynne Jones Books You Need to Read Right Now, a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time, and Kristen kindly agreed to make it part of the lineup. Here’s the introduction:

In an age of conflict, confusion, and uncertainty, it’s natural to reach for facts and verifiable truths to give a sense of firm ground. We might be forgiven for setting aside fantasy literature as a form of escapism, fine for comfort reading but basically irrelevant to the tasks that face us in the “real” world. An event like March Magics — which celebrates master fantasy authors Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett — might be seen as a fluffy distraction from the more important tasks on which we ought to be spending our time.

I feel that this would be a huge mistake. Our current crises stem from a failure of the imagination, which alone can bridge the gap between self and other and enable us to work out of love and empathy rather than narrow self-interest. Only through the imagination can we first conceive and then create a better future. And while undisciplined, wild fantasizing can lead us astray, it’s the truths of the imagination that can guide us through a world that seems to be splitting into a million alternative realities.

All fiction exercises our imagination, but in fantasy this aspect is brought to the fore, is made into the very substance of the story itself. Maybe that’s why fantasy has long gotten little respect in a society that primarily values materialistic success, and that in turn may be why we now seem so little versed in the ability to see through the delusions that are flying so freely.

Whatever the reason, it’s all the more reason to read and learn from the works of these two authors right now, and to share them with others in your life. I have the very great pleasure of reading out loud every night to my ten-year-old son, and I’m delighted that he’s decided that Diana Wynne Jones is one of his favorite authors. As we work our way through her books, I’m struck by how much they offer as a counterbalance to the negative forces at work today.

With these stories as part of his being, I have hope that my son’s imagination will grow strong and healthy to meet the enormous challenges in store for the next generations. And I myself appreciate them as nourishment for my own fight to preserve a world that he can grow up in.

Here are three books that strike me as particularly relevant at the moment. As you read your way through this month, I hope that you will share your own thoughts and insights with us.

Please visit Kristen’s blog to find out which three books I’m recommending you read right now, and keep visiting throughout the month for more celebration of two stellar fantasy authors.