The Correct Number

Started reading Pamela Dean's The Secret Country last night on the way to sleep. My comment so far: Having five children in a portal fantasy, instead of four, is Just Wrong. Four is obviously the Correct Number.

(I'm mostly joking, but there is some small part of me that keeps trying to get the count of kids to come out to four.)

Still, I like it so far, and it is (as Mary Anne suggested when she mentioned the book) giving me useful ideas and tools for my own portal fantasy, which some day I may even continue writing.

One other thought: in John M. Ford's Growing Up Weightless (about which I hope some day to write more), I saw the kids as clearly playing a roleplaying game. Whereas even though the prologue of Secret Country reminded me of bits of Weightless, here it feels to me (so far, and at a gut level rather than an analytical level) more like "playing make-believe" than like an RPG per se. I wonder whether that's a distinction without a difference, whether it has anything to do with my initial misperception of the kids' ages in this book, and whether it has to do with the trappings they use (computer-aided vs pure imagination). And I'm only a few pages into Secret Country, so my perception may change.

6 Responses to “The Correct Number”

  1. aryllian

    In Growing Up Weightless, they have a GM, and in The Secret Country, they all make up the story equally, basically? Or they’re playing and refining a known story? I think that would be the big difference for me; I’ve never been in a roleplaying game that was entirely equal in who gets to make up what.

    • Jed

      Interesting point; I had forgotten that they had a GM in Weightless, but you’re right.

      I’ve heard about GMless/everyone’s-a-GM RPGs, but I don’t think I’ve ever played in one.

      A further thought now that I’ve read some more of Secret Country:

      I also don’t think I ever played a make-believe game in which we figured out what was going to happen ahead of time and then roleplayed it out—when I was a kid, we just all made stuff up as we went along. And we certainly wouldn’t have played through the same scene multiple times in order to get it right, as I gather these kids do. (Though I’m not certain of that.)

      So now I’m curious about whether this is a common approach to play-stories or something unusual.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Well, what about stories you didn’t make up? Ever play ‘Star Wars’ for example? Kids do that kind of thing all the time…

    • Jed

      Hmm. I don’t think I ever did play stories I didn’t make up. Really, most of my make-believe play (I hate to use that phrase, makes it sound so trivial, but I’m not thinking of a better one) was little one-shot episodes: the superheroes go after the generic bad guy who just robbed a bank, that sort of thing. There was some underlying worldbuilding, but no ongoing plot.

      It hadn’t occurred to me that the kids might not have made up the Secret Country plot; interesting.

      Which ties in to one thing I’m finding interesting about the book in general (and this is a lot of why it feels like Weightless to me): its obliqueness. There appears to be a whole lot going on under the surface that I’m not getting (both at the macro level—how the Secret Country game works—and the micro level, with characters frequently looking mysteriously at each other and cutting each other off before they can complete thoughts). I suspect I’ll have to re-read it to get full value out of it.

  3. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Yes, oblique is characteristic of Dean. Some people hate it; I love it. But I also re-read them a lot. 🙂

  4. Jed

    I have mixed feelings about this kind of obliqueness—I often like it when it’s done well (as it is in this case), but I also find it a bit frustrating. But I certainly think it’s a valid and interesting approach; not saying she should’ve done things differently.


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