Time Quintet: Grammar Nazis

[Content Note: Mention of WW2, Fictional Portrayal of Fascism, Racism]

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 7: The Man with Red Eyes

Hey, everyone! I was going to write this sooner but then trans stuff happened on twitter and I got sucked into a black hole. I've shared my Storify account with you here before, yes? (I hate using storify after that one time they set a stalker on me, but it's still the best tweet aggregator out there.) Anyway! We're on Chapter 7 which is honestly a good chapter because things start happening again, so I'm really excited and also I just had a lot of sugar. Let's do this!

Chapter 6 ended mid-conversation, which is always a very awkward way to end a chapter and I dislike when authors do that, but maybe things were different in the 1960s. Anyway, Calvin--who was previously established as having premonitional urges, but just the one time when it explained why he bumped into Meg and Charles--now has his second (and I think last? for the entire series? not sure.) premonition: that if they go into the Big Building they'll be in danger.

Since Calvin was also previously established as pretty religiously following these premonitions because they always come true, that would seem to indicate some hard choices ahead to the tune of (a) being in danger and/or (b) being separated from Calvin who presumably will not want to enter the building if his "compulsions" (his word earlier, and it's a pretty strong word!) won't let him.

   “We knew we were going to be in danger,” Charles Wallace said. “Mrs Whatsit told us that.”

And that is... sort of that? Calvin argues a bit about whether Charles should stay behind while Calvin and Meg go in, but Calvin seems to instantly accept that he's not going to follow this particular compulsory premonition, which seems... odd and out of character with what was previously told to us.

Charles points out that the angels said not to separate (I'm still not sure why not; the reasons seems to be Because The Plot), and Meg agrees they should stick together and insists everyone hold hands. The whole "discussion" is 100 words long and should have been in the last chapter, but it additionally doesn't make a lot of sense because we're contradicting Calvin's established character and muddying a power it didn't make sense for him to have in the first place. (How does compulsive premonitions fit with preternatural communication?)

We move along.

   Holding hands, they crossed the square. The huge CENTRAL Central Intelligence Building had only one door, but it was an enormous one, at least two stories high and wider than a room, made of a dull, bronzelike material.
   “Do we just knock?” Meg giggled.

The door slides open when they try to touch it, which is very cool (automatic doors!) but I'm still boggling a little at the scale here. Why is the door the size of a room? What is the point, are they bringing anything out through the door this size? My god, I always assumed IT (the giant brain we meet later) was basically glued to its mega-pedestal, but what if it goes out this giant door every day and goes home to its giant house? (I know it doesn't, but let me dream.)

Having said all that, I'm probably misremembering ITs scale at this stage. As a kid, I thought of it as a massive brain the size of an elephant, but I could be wrong. We won't find out for a bit longer!

   “Let’s ask somebody something.” Charles led them over to one of the benches. “Er, could you tell us what’s the procedure around here?” he asked one of the men. The men all wore nondescript business suits, and though their features were as different one from the other as the features of men on earth, there was also a sameness to them.
   —Like the sameness of people riding in a subway, Meg thought.—Only on a subway every once in a while there’s somebody different and here there isn’t.

I... dammit, L'Engle.

people sitting on a bus, all thinking the same thing: "look at these people. glassy-eyed automators going about their daily lives, never stopping to look around and THINK! I'm the only conscious human in a world of sheep."

On the one hand, I want to like this because I liked it as a kid. Everyone with a blank face that somehow looked the same was very creepy and effective as a description. On the other hand, this is such a classic nerd power fantasy that it's almost embarrassing to put it on display here.

What's interesting, pushing past the embarrassment at realizing I was not in fact immune to nerd power fantasies, is that this is also a very common Christian power fantasy. The idea of being in the know, of recognizing what's Really Going On is a very pervasive trope in Christian science fiction fantasy. Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness* was (in my mind) successful largely because of its depictions of angel-vs-demon fights happening around us all the time (right now! in the room where you're sitting! just behind your chair!) and the feeling granted to the reader that only they knew the truth about the epic adventure happening in plain sight of all the other sheeple.

Anyway, there's a lot of back and forth satirizing people who are so involved in the system that they don't know how to snap out of it and I'm not sure whether I like it or dislike it because I have to admit it comes over a little twee with the distance of 60 years (since publishing) and several more decades since I was last a kid so I'm not the target audience here which is a valid point.

   The man looked at the children warily. “The procedure for what?”
   “How do we see whoever’s in authority?” Charles asked.
   “You present your papers to the A machine. You ought to know that,” the man said severely.
   “Where is the A machine?” Calvin asked.
   The man pointed to the blank wall.
   “But there isn’t a door or anything,” Calvin said. “How do we get in?”
   “You put your S papers in the B slot,” the man said. “Why are you asking me these stupid questions? Do you think I don’t know the answers? You’d better not play any games around here or you’ll have to go through the Process machine again and you don’t want to do that.”
   “We’re strangers here,” Calvin said. “That’s why we don’t know about things. Please tell us, sir, who you are and what you do.”
   “I run a number-one spelling machine on the second-grade level.”
   “But what are you doing here now?” Charles Wallace asked.
   “I am here to report that one of my letters is jamming, and until it can be properly oiled by an F Grade oiler there is danger of jammed minds.”
   “Strawberry jam or raspberry?” Charles Wallace murmured. Calvin looked down at Charles and shook his head warningly. Meg gave the little boy’s hand a slight, understanding pressure. Charles Wallace, she was quite sure, was not trying to be rude or funny; it was his way of whistling in the dark.

I think that tipped the scales on whether I like the scene and I don't like it because it's just not creepy enough. The jam joke comes across as appropriate from a tense child (although I can no longer keep track of whether Charles is tense; he's been pretty flippant and arrogant up to this point and will be afterwards, which fits because it's his Great Flaw that will cause trouble later, so it's again kind of like the kids are just passing around the emotion-ball at random rather than having consistent characterization) but the fact that there's no consequences for the joke de-fangs this scene.

When a man is threatening to put me through the Process Machine in a scene that is supposed to read as tense and creepy and raise-the-hairs-on-your-neck, I want him to pose a greater threat to my health and well-being than my scolding sister does.

Anyway, this continues for a bit and Meg's hand-squeezing ratchets up to higher levels of intensity. I wish she was allowed to just talk here, and it bugs me that Meg was established as outspoken and Calvin was established as a good communicator and all of that was thrown into a bin for Charles--the youngest, the quietest, and the least good at communication--to do all the talking with Camazotz strangers. How is this even in character for him? On earth back home, he's so shy that numerous people in town think he's almost entirely non-verbal! Where did this sassy chatter come from?

   The man looked at Charles sharply. “I think I shall have to report you. I’m fond of children, due to the nature of my work and I don’t like to get them in trouble, but rather than run the risk myself of reprocessing I must report you.”
   “Maybe that’s a good idea,” Charles said. “Who do you report us to?”
   “To whom do I report you.”
   “Well, to whom, then. I’m not on the second-grade level yet.”
   —I wish he wouldn’t act so sure of himself, Meg thought, looking anxiously at Charles and holding his hand more and more tightly until he wriggled his fingers in protest. That’s what Mrs Whatsit said he had to watch, being proud.—Don’t, please don’t, she thought hard at Charles Wallace. She wondered if Calvin realized that a lot of the arrogance was bravado.

Grammar corrections! Our spokesperson du jour on Planet Fascism is an actual Grammar Nazi. (NB: This is not a term I use anymore in casual conversation, preferring Grammar Pedant so as to not trigger people who are traumatized by Nazis, but I use it here because... well, it's Planet Fascism Death Bat and it seemed appropriate.) Again I'm torn on whether I like this; his pedantry certainly fits with the world we've seen so far where everything must be perfect and creativity is stifled and poetry is impossible. Plus, I can throw this scene in the face of every internet troll ever, and that's always a good thing.

But I hesitate here because grammar pedantry makes me think about all the stuff I know now about privilege and wealth and whiteness and their intersections with education and language and "high" grammar in our culture. And I think this is a valid time to discuss the elephant in the room with a novel that puts forth a theme of "these kids are better because they're smarter".

Charles Wallace's smartness isn't being written in a vacuum, either in-universe or out-of-universe, and there's a lot to unpack. For one, he's white. This would already be a problem, but then L'Engle has to make it worse by drawing attention to it with her genetics fetish stuff (one book has time-traveling eugenics as the actual plot). For two, Charles has tremendous privileges in addition to his whiteness. His parents have multiple Ph.Ds each and are wealthy both in money and (somehow) free time to educate him in one-on-one settings. For three, because Charles is white he will score higher on the IQ tests mention in the text, because our IQ tests are inherently white-biased.

All of this would probably be manageable if Charles' smartness were just a character trait like any other, but... it's not. His "smartness" (measured by white-biased tests against a white-privileging backdrop) is part of this world's morality system. Charles is objectively more important to the cosmic war of good and evil because he's "smarter" than everyone else on earth. Which means the cosmic divine entities in this series objectively prize privileged white men over everyone else, but in ways that don't compromise their moral goodness.

That's a failure of world-building and it's a bit of a doozy.

So I come back to this moment in which a bad guy corrects our hero for his grammar and I have to pause because I wonder if Charles will be correcting grammar himself in a few years. Is this his destiny as the Smartest Guy In The Room? His objection to the correction here is that he's too young to know the right way, as opposed to an objection based in creativity or communication (rigid enforcement of high grammar can stifle both) or the de-privileging of whiteness here. He's not saying that grammar corrections are wrong or snotty or the refuge of bullies, just that he's young enough to be exempt.

Which, you know, I don't expect Charles to be necessarily the most eloquent Social Justice Warrior on earth... except that the text has already dragged Jesus "and Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis" into the mix so maybe I kinda do. (Huh. No Malcolm X in that list. No Martin Luther King Jr either. Wrinkle in Time was published while they were still alive and written in years before that, and it might have been awkward to put Real Live People in your book on the level of Jesus, especially if you didn't have their permission, but it's interesting that we don't see any civil rights leaders in that list of Good People Fighting The Badness. Not even historical ones? Hell, we could've had Abraham Lincoln and I'd have counted that in the spirit of generosity.)

I have digressed. My point: This book has a lot of nerd power fantasy moments and Charles Wallace and Calvin and Meg are all measured on their smartness and regularly pointed out as being smarter than the rest of the hoi polloi. And that's awkward in a morality setting like this one. Nerds who pride themselves on being "smart" are often unwittingly priding themselves on having mastered a culture which is not inherently better than all the other cultures out there. That's something worth remembering.

I am, of course, reading too much into this passage but, hey, ya'll knew whose blog you were at when you clicked the link, eh? (If not, you must be new here! Welcome!)

   The man stood up, moving jerkily as though he had been sitting for a long time. “I hope he isn’t too hard on you,” he murmured as he led the children toward the empty fourth wall. “But I’ve been reprocessed once and that was more than enough. And I don’t want to get sent to IT. I’ve never been sent to IT and I can’t risk having that happen.”
   There was IT again. What was this IT?
   The man took from his pocket a folder filled with papers of every color. He shuffled through them carefully, finally withdrawing one. “I’ve had several reports to make lately. I shall have to ask for a requisition for more A-21 cards.” He took the card and put it against the wall. It slid through the marble, as though it were being sucked in, and disappeared. “You may be detained for a few days,” the man said, “but I’m sure they won’t be too hard on you because of your youth. Just relax and don’t fight and it will all be much easier for you.” He went back to his seat, leaving the children standing and staring at the blank wall.

This part is good and creepy and I like it, but of course my mind goes once again to the ball-dropping boy and what he must have been through and whether he'll be saved by the end of this novel and why we weren't allowed to know one way or another and... yeah. I understand that his story wasn't the one L'Engle wanted to tell, but he's here as a part of the narrative now (like it or not, he's here in this scene with us!) and he's so similar to the kids we're supposed to like and identify with, so it's still so very jarring to be expected to care about these kids but not those kids.

I think we'll cut there for now because it's getting near my bedtime. Next time: There is no war in Ba Sing Se.

* The entire deconstruction tag for Yami's This Present Darkness posts is here. I offer this as a gift and apology for having been absent this month with writing projects.


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