The Rocket Man

My mum had a knack for finding books for me from the library that I would be sure to like.  I think I was ten or twelve when she brought home this book of short stories called R is for Rocket, by, of course, the great, now late, Ray Bradbury.

I fell immediately in love with his visions of dark summer evenings and skies filled with stars.  In my early to mid-teens, I gobbled up S is for Space and then tracked down the sources for many of the stories in those collections – The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles.  I was already a fan of Francois Truffaut’s marvellous film version of Fahrenheit 451, and used to imagine which book I would memorize, because of course I would join that company of readers that we meet at the end of the book/movie.

Ray Bradbury is often someone thought of as a “young adult” writer, perhaps because many of his stories feature children, and that’s ok, but readers should not underestimate his subtlety and mastery of understated horror.  Think of “The Veldt,” where children casually trap their parents in a virtual landscape to be eaten by lions, or “The Invasion,” where children are used by aliens to take over the earth.  Anyone who thinks his work is “cosy” science fiction ought to read some of those stories.

But there is also a lovely, lyrical romanticism to much of his work.  His stories reflect an ideal, 1950’s vision of  small town America, where children may run freely (but perhaps not entirely safely) through long summer twilights.  He captures the wonder, as well as the danger, of space travel.  His space ships really are rockets, tubular, with fins for tails, mechanical but not computerized.  In his universe, the US would settle on Mars, but his was not a vision of colonial conquest.  Rather, the American invaders would be beguiled and assimilated into becoming Martians themselves. And “Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed.”

One of my absolute favourites of his stories has the devastating poignancy that I associate with his work: “All Summer in a Day.”  If you haven’t read it, treat yourself.  You will be blown away, as I was, as I continue to be.

Ray Bradbury was 91; we should be celebrating his life rather than mourning his death.  Yet, I sense that many share my feeling that I’ve somehow lost a part of my childhood, that a lovely, innocent vision of the world has now passed away as well.  In another favourite story of mine, “Kaleidoscope,” an astronaut whose ship has failed plunges to earth, burning up as he enters earth’s atmosphere.  A child spots the falling star, and his mother says “Make a wish.”

Ray Bradbury has gone.  Make a wish.

Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

I spent what I count among the happiest three days of my life in Bristol, in early July 2009, attending and presenting a paper at the international conference on Diana Wynne Jones. Scholars, students, editors, and many who “just” read and enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ novels came together, and spent an entire weekend discussing, enthusing, reminiscing, delighting in and celebrating her work, and rejoicing in the company of so many who shared a love and admiration for this not-well-enough known author for children and young adults. That time could only have been made more sublime (is it possible?) if DWJ herself had been able to attend, as she had planned. She could not, because she was ill with lung cancer.

And now she is gone.

That she was loved by many is attested to by the outpouring of tributes and expressions of grief all over the blogosphere and the internets. She even trended on Twitter yesterday (and would have been highly amused, I’m sure). No doubt, there will have been many on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere scratching their heads, wondering “who the heck is Diana Wynne Jones”? She was not well enough known. Mention Howl’s Moving Castle and more will have seen Miyazaki’s movie than read the book. Mention a school for wizards, and everyone with think “Hogwarts,” though DWJ created Chrestomanci castle many years earlier. Those of us who love and admire her work gnash our teeth at the popularity of a certain JKR or the books about sparkly vampires, when DWJ has been writing richer, funnier, more literate and just plain better books for so long. It took the popularity of JKR to bring DWJ’s books back into print. But back into print they are, and she will live on in her words.

And what words they are. What books. So many! Not all equally great, but even her weakest books are worth reading. And her strongest are … oh, so good.

Everyone at the conference agreed that Diana Wynne Jones writes books for intelligent people. They challenge you. They make you think. They are inventive, and original and can be tricky. But they are exciting and often hilariously funny.

She writes about strong children and weak adults. She writes about how easy it can be to lose your identity and sense of self-worth when everyone around you is preoccupied with other business and no one cares about your feelings. She writes about the importance of independent thinking and self-reliance. She writes about reading, and writing and the power of the imagination and of words. She writes about power, and vanity, and getting things wrong, and making things right, and responsibility. She writes about girls and she writes about boys and she writes about wizards and griffins and a fire demon and a goon and dogs and cats, and every single one has more character in his or her or its little finger than many other author’s characters put together (JKR, I’m talking about you).

One of my favourite little moments in DWJ’s books comes in The Ogre Downstairs, an early domestic fantasy, already demonstrating how delightful and original her work could be. It’s about a newly blended family of children who hate each other, and the “ogre” who is stepfather to half of them, and who are brought together through misadventure with a magical chemistry set filled with mysterious (but entirely logical) ingredients that do things like give the power to fly and bring inanimate objects to life. One of the ingredients is labelled dens drac. (dragon’s teeth). Remember the myth of Jason and the Argonauts? And the dragon’s teeth that when scattered on the ground spring to life as fully armed soldiers? When the children drop these on the driveway of their house, a motor-cycle gang springs up, speaking Greek. Written in Greek. And if you happen to know Greek, there’s a wonderful inside joke, because it’s not Greek. It just looks like it. If you read it out loud they say things like “Let me at ‘im!” and “Full of spirit, aren’t they?” And it’s such a readerly joke, because the family hearing it doesn’t understand the “Greek” but we reading it (maybe) do. And the awful stepfather, who at this point in the book is becoming not-so-awful, saves the day by following the trick that Jason uses in the original myth. And it’s all metafictional and thoroughly delightful.

Ask me to name a favourite of her books, and I will unhesitatingly offer Fire and Hemlock, a lovely, rich, strange, complex, bewildering and truly wonderful riff on love and heroes and reading and enchantment and poetry. But, oh… there’s Howl’s Moving Castle with the vain but charming wizard Howl, and Sophie, who doesn’t know how powerful she is until she’s turned into an old woman, and the fire demon Calcifer who wants to be free but is loyal to them both. And there’s the debonaire and mysterious Chrestomanci. And Archer’s Goon. And The Homeward Bounders, whose final line “But you wouldn’t believe how lonely you get” never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

They are there now.

Thank you, Diana, from the bottom of my heart, for years and years of reading past and to come. Those bright characters and complex worlds will never die; they will be there always, ready to spring to life in the pages of your books.