Hexwood (Diana Wynne Jones)

Posted: July 30, 2014 in fiction
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When this book was first published twenty years ago, I was in its target audience. It’s now out of print, but you can find/order just about anything at a good bookshop. I first read it fairly recently, and it took me back to feeling like a kid reading pulp fantasy novels to escape his unhappy life. It made for good airplane reading.

When dealing with the fantasy genre, it is most common to talk about series instead of independent stories. This is an audience that usually has a voracious appetite for reading material, so the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. After all, if Harry Potter had only lived for one book, he would never have become the cultural landmark he is today. Getting your series turned into a movie is also extremely useful. So when people discuss Diana Wynne Jones, they tend to talk about Howl’s Moving Castle, the first of three books and it became an animated picture by Hayao Miyazaki. Being a one-off with no film, Hexwood doesn’t get much attention, and I’m sure the out-of-print thing doesn’t help.

This novel hits most of Diana Wynne Jones’s major themes: Celtic legends, transformations, discovering one’s identity, magic, and British culture. [It was very strange to both read Howl and see the movie, and watch how all the explicitly Welsh culture from the novel becomes Japanese in the film.] I like the way Jones resists Tolkien’s influence. The sword and sorcery stuff is there, but it’s not there for its own sake; it teaches us how to live in the contemporary world. And when a character even mentions hobbits, the author kills him immediately. Spoilers might be considered particularly egregious in a book like this, but I’m going to ruin it for you anyway.

Here’s the idea: There is a vast intergalactic government/corporation that relies on selling flint from Earth, which is used in interplanetary transportation. Earth has a galactic monopoly on flint, but we don’t know that. The Earth represented is a fairly close approximation to the one we live in. The corporation is governed by a group of five Reigners, who are so far from most of the workers that they are more mythic than real. They have an assassin called The Servant who takes care of any problems for them; he is their public face. The current Reigners are corrupt and excessively involved with consolidating their already extensive power. On Earth, the corporation is called Rayner Hexwood International; the Earth installation has the two goals of exporting as much flint as possible as cheaply as possible and preventing the local population from discovering the existence of life offplanet. There is also a secretive underground file storage facility, sometimes called a library, sometimes Hexwood Farm. The library houses The Bannus, a reality simulator that helps people make decisions. It was designed to create a reality that would run people through several different versions of a situation so that they could choose the best way to act. This Bannus was programmed to choose Reigners. Reigner One didn’t want to lose his position, so he sealed it up and hid it where he thought no one would ever find it. He did the same to his two most dangerous enemies. A thousand years later The Bannus is pissed, and manipulates a computer hacker into breaking the seals and turning it on. The dupe wanted to do some live role-playing with hobbits on a Grail Quest, but instead he got angry alien technology with mind control. It sucks in all the people around it and convinces them they’re living in this Camelot-style environment; as the book goes on, it sucks in more and more people, and the situation gets increasingly complex. But none of these people know they’re in a simulation, only the hacker does. Life before plumbing was rather more difficult than he anticipated. But hackerboy isn’t the protagonist; he’s just a pawn who thinks that he’s more central than he is.

The local village is early-1990s contemporary British, the sort of life considered normal by the intended audience. Ann is a regular girl with a familiarly obtuse family. She hears voices in her head and discovers a magical medieval world in the woods at the edge of the village. She accepts her reality as the real one, but can’t convince her friends in the woods around the castle that their reality isn’t real. Given time, Ann figures out that neither is real. She’s not a girl; she’s a grown woman who accompanied the Reigners to Earth to try to defuse the situation. The goal is to find and shut down The Bannus; it’s hard because it keeps convincing people they’re knights or ladies-in-waiting or shopkeepers. And if a sentient computer can alter reality, what would it make itself look like? Would it really become a Grail? The Bannus’s goal is to draw in the Reigners and kill them. This makes the book significantly darker than, say, the Howl books, because people die horrible deaths. Slipping in rivers, drinking poison, and being attacked by dragons. Not really kid-friendly, but the few references to romance or sexuality are all appropriate for the type of ten-year-old I was.

Even though this book was written by a woman, even though the main character is a female, it just barely passes the Bechdel Test. There are comparatively few female characters, and most of their interactions are unfortunate stereotypes: prosaic mother meets rebellious preteen daughter, evil woman in position of power eliminates all female rivals. They talk about fashion and families. Even in this world, an imagined world containing other imagined worlds, action belongs to men. The back of the book makes it sound like it’s all about Ann, but the cover art has three young men. It’s just weird.

This is a book about clearing away the corrupt elements at the top of society and replacing them with more virtuous equivalents. It’s not about revolution and overthrow; it’s about peaceful transitions to a better version of the present system. This is why the killing is so strange to me. Normally, the violent situations can be avoided, and there’s room for everyone in society. In Hexwood, there is no place for some people. They have to die. Like most fantasy narratives, it’s essentially conservative. I think that’s weird too, but it’s also true.

To some extent, all fiction is fantasy because it doesn’t describe events that actually happened. The stuff we label the fantasy genre, though, tends to present us with thought-experiments that study our limitations. Along with getting rid of the existing Reigners, The Bannus is also training the new ones not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Cycles of violence and exploitation can be broken, but someone has to work consciously toward creating new patterns.

And, there you have it. The language is functional and direct; the messages are fairly clearly spelled out; the characters are pleasant to be with. It’s not a taxing book, but it is one I enjoy. Think, Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. That kind of feel.

  1. Although the main protagonists in the book are male, I wouldn’t say the society they come from is necessarily one in which action belongs to males. The Servants are unisex, for example – it just happens that the current one is male. And the political system is one where a democracy has been hijacked by a military(ish) junta and the current protagonists are trying to restore democracy, with the added twist that the junta is made up of immortal, all-powerful evil wizards who are almost impossible to contain, other than by killing them, and will certainly kill anyone who opposes them if they can.

    • theoccasionalman says:

      I suppose I was just acting out my frustration with Ann. We see a great deal of the book from her perspective; she’s the most important woman in the novel; and yet she seems to actually do very little but observe. There is a passive sort of power in controlling the gaze, but I want her to be more Arya Stark than she is. While the society’s structure seems equal on paper, as you point out, women actually seem to accomplish very little and are kept in subordinate positions. Can you imagine how it would be if it had been written by Margaret Atwood?

      This may be the not-cool thing to do, but I really want to thank you for saying something. People whom I haven’t known a long time almost never comment here; it’s good to hear a fresh voice. Be welcome to my virtual living room, where I spout off about books with an authority I probably don’t deserve.

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