Sunday, March 27, 2011

RIP Diana Wynne Jones

It's been quite a week for death. Liz Taylor died, Geraldine Ferraro died, one of my best friends' cats almost died and Diana Wynne Jones died. I was informed of her death this morning at breakfast.

We were discussing Liz Taylor and one of my friends looked sadly at me and said "Things come in Threes--Diana Wynne Jones died." I was upset by this as I have not been by a celebrity death in a long time (possibly ever.) I had spent the last few months stalking the young adult sections in bookstores to see if she had a new novel out.

Diana Wynne Jones was a phenomenon. She was a prolific writer of science fiction who wrote quality work. I can't remember what was the first book of hers I read (probably Howl's Moving Castle, since I fell in love with the film) but I had *avoided* her work for a long time simply because there was so much of it. Most science fiction writers who have a bajillion titles in print write crap (or at least, they started out well, but about halfway through their careers--either because their name sold books or because editors became afraid of them--they started writing crap.) There are exceptions (that fella with the German name--stars with V) but are you going to tell me that every volume by Asimov is brilliant? Every Harry Potter book? I'm not not even going to defend Tanya Huff's every work and if you know me well you know how I value Ms Huff's contribution to the genre.

As mentioned above it took me a while to pick up a Diana Wynne Jones novel. I didn't know about her when I was a young adult (I was all about Lois Duncan until I graduated to Stephen King) but I have no problem with reading books written for a younger audience. Before you roll your eyes and mutter "Harry Potter" under your breath consider that The Hobbit was written for Tolkien's grand-kids. Sometime in the last five years or so I started reading Diana Wynne Jones' books. I did not love all of them. I did however love most of them. I was fascinated by her characters and the worlds she created for them to inhabit. Even the books I didn't like were well thought out.

Among the authors I like she is a bit of an outlier. True, she is a female science fiction writer, but she doesn't have a chip the size of Texas on her shoulder. She doesn't write geek books, her books all are pre-internet-even the most recent one (although there is a computer in her most recent book, it is not connected to the internet and behaves like a computer circa 1980--one of the characters keeps calling it a "computall") She has rather, um, traditional gender roles in her books (women cook, clean and do secretarial work and the one feminist character I've encountered is kind of a laughingstock) but I still find her books great fun.

She has both male and female protagonists but they are always young. She wrote series of books--the Chrestomanci Chronicles and The Howl's Moving Castle series--but once the protagonists have grown up, they are background characters. They may still be important, but we don't see through their eyes anymore. Instead a new, younger protagonist tells us what he or she thinks about them. I think that's part of what allowed her to keep producing interesting books.

When my friend told me that Diana Wynne Jones had died I was crushed. There will be no more of her books. I will never find out how Marianne Pinhoe gets on at Chrestomanci castle, or see how Cat Chaunt does as Chrestomanci. It's an odd feeling. Many of my favorite authors are already dead. There will never be another Dickens novel or another Dumas novel or even another Roger Zelazny novel. I was sad and shocked when Douglas Adams died, but this is different. In fact it is because Ms. Wynne Jones is an outlier. Douglas Adams gave us the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and a few other things (I think all will agree that the Hitchhiker's Guide was his Magnum Opus) I felt that he'd already done his big thing. I was also sad when Kurt Vonnegut died, but he had become (for good reasons, I think) a bitter old man and I wasn't expecting anything further from him.

Diana Wynne Jones is different for me. Because she's been publishing for a long time I went out of my way *not* to discover how old she was, because I didn't want to know how much more time she had to write books. That's how much I like her writing. It's not like a friend of mine has died. It's not like an artist I like has died (Johnny Cash, Douglas Adams, etc.) It's something in between the two.

My heroes--be they authors or politicians or actors or singers do not improve with success or age. Some of them change their tone, some of them (the wise ones) don't have anything further to say once they've made their point. Diana Wynne Jones was unusual because she continued to write good fiction even though she was already successful. How good was it? Good enough that I'm thinking "now I'll never know how X and Y end." She didn't write fiction that was designed to change people's minds--like Vonnegut, Dick, Rowling*--as far as I can tell she wrote fiction to entertain and she did it well. I will miss her.

*I only included Sci-fi/Fantasy authors in this list. I omitted Zola, Dickens, Gaskell, Sartre, Sinclair, etc.

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