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28: On Wizards

January 17, 2013

The Slice of Sci-Fi podcast recently put out a call for book recommendations that would make good genre movies. Listeners were encouraged to call in to the show and talk about the book, what actors they’d choose to play the main characters, who would direct it, etc. It got me thinking. There’s this trend, basically pioneered by the Harry Potter films, of producing books based on Young Adult novels. Now that the Harry Potter film series is over and Twilight is done, we have renewed our quest for the story that’s appealing to kids but mature enough to captivate the adults taking them to the theater. I immediately thought of Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series, the first book of which, So You Want To Be A Wizard?, would be perfect to fill the niche. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a movie that ready to be made.

The story follows Nita Callahan, a bookish but brave middle school student who gets picked on by the other kids because they think it’s cool to beat on the geek. But a strange, slim book in the children’s section of the library finds her one day, and changes her life. The book, for which the novel is named, seems like a kid’s career book at first, but is filled with strange writing, words like “Temporospatial Claudications,” “Aphthonic Interventions” and an Oath Nita reads, promising that “in Life’s name and for Life’s sake” she will use the Art for nothing but the service of that Life. Overnight, Nita becomes a wizard. Shortly after, she meets Christopher “Kit” Rodriguez, a boy her age who found his strange book in a New York thrift store. Together, they take on their first mission in a dark, alternate universe Manhattan, and fight to save the world from the Lone Power who created Death. 

Now let’s be clear. This is not “swish-and-flick” wizardry. What makes the Young Wizards series fascinating is how closely tied magic is to science, right down to the books Nita and Kit use to reference their spells. They’re not called tomes, volumes, or Books of Shadows, but Manuals. Wizards may bend the laws of physics, but cannot break them. They can travel to space, to galaxies far beyond our own, but still have to draw spell diagrams that calculate how many cubic feet of air will be needed to breathe for an hour on the moon, or what thickness of an atmospheric shield spell will protect against the x-rays of a quasar. And most importantly, the energy to make a spell work has to come from somewhere, and must be paid in full. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. 

A wizard’s first duty to slow entropy – the eventual death of the universe. This gives the YW stories an interesting moral angle. In each book, Nita, Kit, and their friends, face off against an enemy that they will never truly defeat. Death, and the one who offers it as a gift at the creation of Life.

The nine books in the series are amazing stories that explore the meaning of death, evil, and how the two are not intrinsically one and the same. Without giving anything away, these books take us from exploring what death means for a planetary system, to what it means for a single family – how some death must be stopped, and other death allowed to take its course. How the Lone One must not be destroyed, but given the choice to change and redeem Itself. 

Again, I return to the question posed by the folks at Slice of Sci-Fi.

No. These books can’t be made into movies. Not yet. They would be beautiful if they were, though. They could be gritty and dark, and J.J. Abrams could direct them and put lots of lens flare in the scenes on Mars. I even have a vague image in my minds eye of how the spellcasting would look.

They can’t be movies because we as an audience not ready to offer undefeatable evil the chance for redemption. Nita and Kit may walk away at the end of the first book having defeated the Lone One, but It exists in all time and all space. It must be offered redemption again, and again. I don’t think we’re a society that values redemption of what we perceive to be evil.

The books are great. The first book of the series was originally published in 1983, and is still going strong, with the tenth book scheduled to be published next year. I’m not ashamed to admit I still follow it. Recently, Miss Diane Duane announced she would be releasing the “New Millennium” editions of the first four books, which have been updated to be consistent with the timeline of the later books in the series, and take place in 2008 rather than 1984. Her reasoning was, primarily, that the books were getting dated and were less accessible to the iGeneration. I completely agree. The third book of the series is especially difficult to read if you have only a vague idea of how a 1980s Macintosh functions.

I first read So You Want To Be A Wizard? ten years ago, and these books still hold up to modern scrutiny. It’s a series that deals with mature concepts, and a natural blend of sci-fi and fantasy. And honestly, it almost got me to like math.

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