Wish You Were Here
The Homeward Bounders
By Diana Wynne Jones
1981’s The Homeward Bounders is a standalone science fantasy novel by Diana Wynne Jones.
Protagonist Jamie’s unremarkable life ended the day he stumbled across Them playing games with human destiny. Luckily for Jamie, the rules of the game include provisions for pieces who know too much, as Jamie does. Jamie was discarded from the game, consigned to wander between realities as a Bounder until he could find his way back home.
Experience and a conversation with the unfortunate Titan  who inadvertently inspired Their game lets Jamie learn some of the rules in play. First is that Bounders cannot die, either by accident or deliberate action. Second is that people still within the game cannot interfere with Bounders without suffering dire consequences. Rule three is that time itself is unreliable where Bounders are concerned; it moves unpredictably and has little effect on Bounders.
Jamie is not the first human to be discarded by Them and since Bounders do not die, their numbers can only rise with time. In fact, so many people have been discarded that the players are approaching the hard limit on the number of discards. It’s not so surprising, therefore, that given enough time Jamie would accumulate friends and allies: prickly priestess Helen, idealistic demon-hunters Jaris and Konstam, as well as Adam and his sister Vanessa, whose lack of eldritch powers is more than compensated by their unique perspective.
Together, Jamie and his friends threaten the game itself. But They never play fair.
I wonder if this has ever been turned into a video game. It would be a smashing video game.
Authors unable to tell a compete story in fewer than half a dozen thick volumes could take a lesson from Jones, who manages to introduce all of her characters, outline the rules of her setting, and make her way through a complete plot in 267 pages. As well, each character is included for a reason. Nobody is consigned to random braid-tugging.
I have not read a lot of Jones (maybe that could be project for 2018!) but I’ve read enough to know Jones was not especially interested in telling pleasant, comforting stories for easily discomforted children. She does not seem to have thought children needed to be written down to or coddled (adults were another matter). Life is often terrible and if the logic of her story meant awful things were in store for her characters, she would steadfastly follow that logic rather than trying to alter the game to get some clichéd result. Victory is not assured and even if there is one, it will not be easy or cheap.
On the other hand, Jones isn’t interested in simply stamping on her characters’ faces over and over. Jones’ protagonists have to earn their happy endings; those happy endings may be temporary and heart-breaking; but as bleak as things may appear, there’s always hope. Even when hope is the worst thing for the character in question.
The Homeward Bounders is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo)
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Please send corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com
1: The chained Titan is pretty clearly Prometheus. Jones stops short of actually naming him. Just barely short; at one point she translates his name as “forethought,” which would be the meaning of his name in classical Greek.