Philip Pullman’s latest book is adventure for an anxious age
LONDON (AP) — The line between fantasy and reality is blurry in the world of Philip Pullman. Which, he thinks, is how it should be.
The British author’s latest book, “The Secret Commonwealth,” is set in a world of mystery, magic, witches and daemons — as well as untrustworthy politicians, manipulative charmers and fake news.
“If you’re interested in the world, the world is bound to affect what you write,” Pullman says.
“The Secret Commonwealth” brings back the indomitable Lyra, whom millions of readers have followed in four previous books from infancy through an adventure-filled adolescence — and now into troubled young adulthood. In the latest book, Lyra’s studies at Oxford University and interrupted by a personal crisis and a journey in search of mysterious Central Asian roses and their dangerous power.
It’s a rollicking adventure with a philosophical undertow, set in a fantastical universe. But it’s also shadowed by the specter of current events.
Like his heroine, Pullman is troubled by the world around him. A chat with the 72-year-old author inevitably turns to Brexit, as many conversations in Britain do these days. Pullman thinks Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is a big mistake. He considers ex-Prime Minister David Cameron a “complacent fool” for calling the 2016 referendum on the country’s EU membership.
Like many people looking at the state of politics on both sides of the Atlantic, he worries about “the decay of truth … “the idea that nothing is real, nothing is true, life is a tissue of improbable lies spun over nothingness.”
“You can say anything, and if you say it with enough effrontery, you can get away with it,” Pullman told The Associated Press from his home in Oxford.
“We see this very clearly in Donald Trump and in Boris Johnson. And that’s a very dangerous state of affairs. If you allow the idea to develop that it doesn’t really matter what you say because no one will believe it anyway, we’re on very shaky ground.”
Questions about truth, lies and the limits of knowledge ripple through “The Secret Commonwealth,” the second volume in a planned trilogy “The Book of Dust,” and a follow-up to the three-volume saga “His Dark Materials.”
“His Dark Materials” introduced the world to Lyra, an imaginative, unmanageable child being raised by scholars of Oxford’s Jordan College.
The world of the books is a familiar-yet-uncanny blend of old-fashioned technology — gas lights, airships — and advanced science, of everyday worries and fantastical creatures including witches and armored bears. In Pullman’s most striking act of imagination, every human has an inseparable animal soul mate known as a daemon (pronounced demon).
Like its predecessors, “The Secret Commonwealth” brims with perilous trips to far-flung locales, including Geneva, Prague and Istanbul. But there is also a new, adult, sense of unease. Lyra is no longer a child but a troubled young adult who finds herself estranged from her daemon Pantalaimon — effectively at war with herself.
“If we are estranged temporarily or permanently from part of ourselves, it’s a terrible situation to be in,” Pullman said. It’s also one many people who have made a rocky transition from adolescence into adulthood will recognize.
The first volume of “His Dark Materials” was published in 1995, so Pullman is on his second generation of readers. Reviewing the new book in The Guardian, University College London English professor John Mullan said that “Pullman seems to be writing for those who read the HDM novels as children, but are children no longer.” He called it “a book for getting older with.”
It rankles with Pullman that because of publishing industry categories his work is categorized as children’s literature. Such has been the success of the series — 17.5 million copies sold around the world — that Pullman says he is “quite often asked to sign a book for somebody’s little baby that they’ve just named Lyra.”
“I always sign it ‘For the real Lyra,’” he said.
As she faces a personal crisis, the book also pitches Lyra into conflict with an oppressive religious hierarchy, the Magisterium, which has an intense interest in those mysterious Central Asian roses.
Pullman is an atheist, and his unflattering depiction of religious authority has drawn criticism in the past from some Christian groups. His books have been pulled from some Catholic school library shelves in Canada and the United States over the years.
Pullman remains convinced that “when religious power acquires political power, terrible things happen.” But the book also takes aim at a strain of hyper-rationalism that the author regards as equally dangerous. The title of “The Secret Commonwealth” refers to the realm of the mysterious, inexplicable and magical.
“I’ve always been associated with the rationalist side of things, with science and with evidence-based (thinking),” he said. “But you can have too much rationality. You can have too much reason. You can be reasonable that you’re crazy.
“The one aspect of the world that science has looked at since Galileo is the parts that you can measure … That’s the domain of science. But what science leaves out is the things you can’t measure, the things that we most treasure in our daily lives: affection, love, grief, longing for something, nostalgia.
“If we were being really reasonable about everything in our lives, we’d never fall in love.”
A new contingent of fans is discovering Pullman’s world through an eight-part HBO/BBC adaptation of “His Dark Materials.” It stars the sparky 14-year-old Dafne Keen as Lyra, with a supporting cast that includes James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Pullman is an executive producer on the series — “a title I’m very proud of — I want to put it on the back of a chair.”
A third volume in “The Book of Dust” will wrap up Lyra’s story, though Pullman says work on it is still at the stage where “I lie on the sofa staring at the ceiling, I read a lot about the places and the ideas I want to write about.”
“I haven’t actually written the words ‘Chapter One’ yet,” he said. “I can’t tell you very much except that we’re going to Central Asia, and there’s a desert in it, and there are roses.
“I have many pictures in my mind, both of events and of places and of people, but I don’t know how it’s going to get there. I can see where it’s going but I don’t know how to get there till I write it.”
Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless