Time Quintet: Nobody Suffers Here

[Wrinkle Content Note: Fascism, Hypnotism, Captivity]

Wrinkle Recap: Charles Wallace is being piloted by IT.

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 8: The Transparent Column

In the first half of chapter 8 there was a lot of ineffective grabbing that felt weird and awkward; in the second half we're going to Use Our Words instead. It still won't work, but points to the heroes for recognizing when a strategy isn't working and trying something else. I like that.

What I like less is Calvin continuing in a series of "hush, Meg" and "shut up, Meg". I remember liking Calvin when I was younger and thinking he was a perfect boyfriend, but I like him much less now. He hasn't had any better ideas than she--the "hold on to Charles" plan was his and it went nowhere and accomplished nothing--but he sure does feel confident telling her to shut her yapper.

   “Shut up a minute, Meg,” Calvin whispered to her. He looked up at the man with red eyes. “Okay, have your henchmen let us go and stop talking to us through Charles. We know it’s you talking, or whatever’s talking through you. Anyhow, we know you have Charles hypnotized.”
   “A most primitive way of putting it,” the man with red eyes murmured. [...] “It is not necessary for you to know who I am. I am the Prime Coordinator, that is all you need to know.”
   “But you’re being spoken through, aren’t you, just like Charles Wallace? Are you hypnotized, too?”
   “I told you that was too primitive a word, without the correct connotations.”
   “Is it you who are going to take us to Mr. Murry?”
   “No. It is not necessary, nor is it possible, for me to leave here. Charles Wallace will conduct you.”

As a kid I remember being pleasantly creeped out by all the confusing uncertainty flying around here but now that I'm older I really wish Calvin could ask follow-up questions and press an issue rather tmurryhan moving immediately on like a member of the Washington press corps.

If 'hypnotism' isn't the right word for what is happening here (and I agree it's not) then what is? (There is a difference, albeit perhaps not a practical one, between "mind control" where Charles is present in his body but unwilling or unable to disobey, and "body control" where Charles is mentally not in his body and someone else has possessed control. I'd at least ask.) What does the Prime Coordinator mean when he says it's impossible for him to "leave here"? Does he mean the room? Does he poop in the corner? Are the 'guards' really just there to clean his litter box?

   Charles Wallace gave a slight jerk of his head, saying, “Come,” and started to walk in a strange, gliding, mechanical manner.
   [...] Suddenly Meg broke into a run and caught up with Calvin. “Cal,” she said, “listen. Quick. Remember Mrs Whatsit said your gift was communication and that was what she was giving you. We’ve been trying to fight Charles physically, and that isn’t any good. Can’t you try to communicate with him? Can’t you try to get in to him?”

Wrinkle in Time is arguably a Middle Grade (MG) book rather than Young Adult (YA), though these categories are fiercely fought over and the edges are fuzzy and gray. I spend way too much time thinking about genre conventions and age-buckets for novels, and now have thoughts about which books are most likely to be written in ways where the protagonists forget important clues so the reader can feel smart for remembering them.

I realize a lot has been happening over the course of their afternoon, but it really has not been more than a couple hours (tops?) since the angels gave them their instructions. It feels odd, as an adult reader, to see the children repeatedly reminding each other of those instructions--they weren't that complex. Heck, it's been a whole year since I read that passage, but I'm pretty sure it was: Meg gets Magic Glasses and "her faults", Calvin gets words and communication, and Charles Wallace is in danger because of his hubris over his smarts. I feel this is the spot for a "You Had One Job" meme.

   “Golly day, you’re right.” Calvin’s face lit up with hope, and his eyes, which had been somber, regained their usual sparkle. “I’ve been in such a swivet—It may not do any good, but at least I can try.” They quickened their pace until they were level with Charles Wallace. Calvin reached out for his arm, but Charles flung it off.
   “Leave me alone,” he snarled.
   “I’m not going to hurt you, old sport,” Calvin said. “I’m just trying to be friendly. Let’s make it up, hunh?”

Calvin, you were supposed to be smart. Remember the first half of the book when you were talking genetic offshoots with Charles and condescending to Meg that she's not quite as bad a student as she thinks? I do! Now you're touching the guy who has (a) repeatedly asked not to be touched and (b) who you just tackled to the ground less than a minute ago.

Even when Charles Wallace was Charles Wallace and you two were buddies, you didn't touch him and throw your arm around him and call him "old sport". This is so affected and false-sounding, like a car salesman who has taken the whole "the most beautiful sound to someone is their name" advice way too far and has managed to use your name every other word during his spiel.

   “You mean you’re coming around?” Charles Wallace asked.
   “Sure,” Calvin’s voice was coaxing. “We’re reasonable people, after all. Just look at me for a minute, Charlibus.”
   Charles Wallace stopped and turned slowly to look at Calvin with his cold, vacant eyes. Calvin looked back, and Meg could feel the intensity of his concentration. An enormous shudder shook Charles Wallace. For a brief flash his eyes seemed to see. Then his whole body twirled wildly, and went rigid. He started his marionette’s walk again. “I should have known better,” he said. “If you want to see Murry you’d better come with me and not try any more hanky-panky.”

Well, that... was not communication in the word-sense.

   “Is that what you call your father—Murry?” Calvin asked. Meg could see that he was angry and upset at his near success.

I sympathize; I'm upset and angry that the power of good communication which was previously hyped up and which I was here for (if I have any superpower, it probably involves talking too much!), is instead the power of... quietly staring into someone's eyes until they blink. I feel like we were sold a false bill of goods and I wish to speak with a manager, please.

   “Father? What is a father?” Charles Wallace intoned. “Merely another misconception. If you feel the need of a father, then I would suggest that you turn to IT.”

A recurring piece of Charles' characterization that is interesting to me is that he and Mr. Murry don't know each other. Charles was a baby when Murry disappeared and he doesn't remember him; Murry, of course, remembers the baby boy Charles was but this four year old child is a stranger to him. Charles longs to see his father, but it's a very different kind of longing than what Meg experiences; Meg wants the man she knew to be returned to her while Charles wants... a father.

It's suggested in the narrative at several points that this disconnection is partly why Charles was so vulnerable to IT's influence, and to this I will build a scaffolding of my own headcanon: perhaps when he went into IT, he found a father-figure there and couldn't bring himself to escape. Of course, all this goes with L'Engle and Meg's insistence that you don't want a Father for anything, you just want a Father, which as several people have already pointed out is not a universal desire.

Still, the best way to trap someone is to give them a reason not to leave. So if Charles wants a father for whatever reason, perhaps that is what IT offered him.

Anyway, time for some ableism but it's at least on the part of Evil:

   “All in good time,” Charles Wallace said. “You’re not ready for IT yet. First of all I will tell you something about this beautiful, enlightened planet of Camazotz.” His voice took on the dry, pedantic tones of Mr. Jenkins. “Perhaps you do not realize that on Camazotz we have conquered all illness, all deformity—”
   [...] “We let no one suffer. It is so much kinder simply to annihilate anyone who is ill. Nobody has weeks and weeks of runny noses and sore throats. Rather than endure such discomfort they are simply put to sleep.”
   “You mean they’re put to sleep while they have a cold, or that they’re murdered?” Calvin demanded.
   “Murder is a most primitive word,” Charles Wallace said. “There is no such thing as murder on Camazotz. IT takes care of all such things.”

I talk a lot about disability on Twitter and especially in bookish writing circles, and it's depressing how often I and others have to explain that a future/magical setting with healing magic or technology beyond our wildest dreams won't simply have no disabled people in it because everyone got all healed up. Not everyone with a disability wants to have their disability removed, and the reasons behind that choice are individual and complicated.

So it's actually really validating to see a science fiction author from the misty pasts of the genre actually understand that a world with no disabilities is a world steeped in genocide? I mean, yes, the strong implication here is that there are no "cures" and they just kill everyone who is disabled or neurodivergent and that's bad, but that's really the only way you can achieve a "no disabled" future. Some disabled people do not want cures, so they're going to show up in your setting unless you're actively killing or forcibly curing them. L'Engle gets that, and it's nice that she gets that! Good!

Over here on the other hand, I'm seriously forced to question if IT wants the entire planet to die from a single virulent strain of chickenpox or something. That's what happens when you kill anyone who is developing an immunity through the fun and unpleasant process of getting the sniffles for a couple weeks. If that is the plan, I kinda like it for the audacity of it: drain the planet dry of resources, then let everyone die in a single plague that spreads like wildfire.

Except it occurs to me that we really don't know IT's motivations, do we? What's the goal here? Maybe IT isn't planning to use up the planet, destroy it, and move on to a new one. While IT is clearly the villain here, I don't understand what the point of all this is. Why does IT hold Mr. Murry for four years? (Or has IT even had him that long? Maybe Murry tessered around for a few years trying to get back to earth and is a recent acquisition? I honestly can't remember.) Is there a reason for the plot, or is IT just a dick because Satan is a dick and therefore they're dicking it up together?

Anyway, Charles waves at a wall and it goes all insubstantial and he talks about moving the atoms out of the way ("I simply pushed the atoms aside and we walked through the space between them.") and while I know atoms are mostly empty space, I'm always very suspicious when people bring it up because it's like, dude, humans are "mostly water" but you can't drink me through a straw, you get me? I mention this only because there's been some questions as to why this is Science Fiction and not Fantasy and here you go: they talk about atoms. Then they go through a Future Elevator.

   Charles continued his lecture. “On Camazotz we are all happy because we are all alike. Differences create problems. You know that, don’t you, dear sister?”
   “No,” Meg said.
   “Oh, yes, you do. You’ve seen at home how true it is. You know that’s the reason you’re not happy at school. Because you’re different.”
   “I’m different, and I’m happy,” Calvin said.
   “But you pretend that you aren’t different.”
   “I’m different, and I like being different.” Calvin’s voice was unnaturally loud.
   “Maybe I don’t like being different,” Meg said, “but I don’t want to be like everybody else, either.”

This part is fascinating because it touches on bullying, which I think will resonate with a lot of children. (It certainly did with me, anyway.) Charles is neurodivergent (this is canon, autism or not); Meg appears to be neurodivergent in a different direction (her complaints about school and the teaching methods not gelling with her) and is physically plain to the point of being a target (frizzy hair and, iirc, braces?); Calvin is attractive and good at sports, but he comes from poverty and an abusive family life that would cause him to be bullied if anyone at school knew.*

[*How does Calvin keep his home life secret at school? I can see this just barely being possible if he were an only child, but he's got eleventy trillion little brothers and sisters. Not all of them are going to be invested in keeping up an "image" of being not-impoverished and not-beaten at home. I feel like the "poor, abused child who manages to seem 'normal' and be popular at school" trope works better when there's only one set of loose lips to sink ships, as it were.]

But so anyway, all three of the children are targets for bullying. Here IT is arguing that the solution to bullying isn't for bullies to stop or learn compassion or anything, but rather for everyone to just be identical and then no one can be bullied over anything. This is the idea behind school uniforms, and it doesn't really work. Students always find ways to be different, even if those ways are subtle (hair, makeup, body art, alteration of uniforms, accessories, belongings, etc.). But IT is more powerful than your average school principal and has managed to create a world in which no differences exist: everyone is as identical as possible. Thus, there is no bullying! Voila!

Of course, this is horrifying and ought to be so. Ten points to Gryffindor for pulling this off. But I find this very interesting in light of the fact that I've read the sequel--A Wind in the Door--where much of the narrative is about teaching Charles Wallace to act and appear neurotypical so bullies will stop targeting him. Everyone--from his supposedly understanding parents, to the twins, to the principal, to the angels, to Charles Wallace himself--agrees that this is a crackerjack plan, with only Meg putting up any kind of resistance to the idea that Charles Wallace needs to learn to "act normal" (note: this is called "masking" in autistic circles) in order to survive life among the neurotypicals.

So the first book tells us that being different is good and lovely and only the Evil IT would argue that the best way to combat bullying is for everyone to be the same. The second book tells us that... the best way to combat bullying is for everyone to act the same. Huh. I wonder if L'Engle noticed that. But I digress and there'll be plenty of time to tackle Wind later.

   As the word IT fell from Charles’s lips, again Meg felt as though she had been touched by something slimy and horrible. “So what is this IT?” she asked.
   “You might call IT the Boss.” Then Charles Wallace giggled, a giggle that was the most sinister sound Meg had ever heard. “IT sometimes calls ITself the Happiest Sadist.”
   Meg spoke coldly, to cover her fear. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
   “That’s s-a-d-i-s-t, not s-a-d-d-e-s-t, you know,” Charles Wallace said, and giggled again. “Lots of people don’t pronounce it correctly.”
   “Well, I don’t care,” Meg said defiantly. “I don’t ever want to see IT, and that’s that.”

My god, it's the Happy Medium again but with kinks this time. I mean, I know the word 'sadist' has meaning and use outside kink communities, and maaaaaybe in the 60's that wasn't the first place one's mind would go when they heard the word, but I'm just saying as a fellow punster that when you're shoving this sort of thing into a kid's book you may need an editor to stop you.

The joke doesn't really work, though, if you know how "sadist" is pronounced--which Charles clearly does, and Meg is hearing him say the word rather than seeing it. "Happy Sad-est" is a cute little oxymoron but "Happy Sadist" is not and since the two words sound nothing alike the joke only works in print. Which is not the medium through which Meg is hearing the word.

Editors. They will help you kill these darlings.

   Charles Wallace’s strange, monotonous voice ground against her ears. “Meg, you’re supposed to have some mind. Why do you think we have wars at home? Why do you think people get confused and unhappy? Because they all live their own, separate, individual lives. I’ve been trying to explain to you in the simplest possible way that on Camazotz individuals have been done away with. Camazotz is ONE mind. It’s IT. And that’s why everybody’s so happy and efficient. That’s what old witches like Mrs Whatsit don’t want to have happen at home.”
   [...] Meg shook her head violently. “No!” she shouted. “I know our world isn’t perfect, Charles, but it’s better than this. This isn’t the only alternative! It can’t be!”
   “Nobody suffers here,” Charles intoned. “Nobody is ever unhappy.”
   “But nobody’s ever happy, either,” Meg said earnestly. “Maybe if you aren’t unhappy sometimes you don’t known how to be happy. Calvin, I want to go home.”
   “We can’t leave Charles,” Calvin told her, “and we can’t go before we’ve found your father. You know that. But you’re right, Meg, and Mrs Which is right. This is Evil.”
   Charles Wallace shook his head, and scorn and disapproval seemed to emanate from him. “Come. We’re wasting time.” [...] He raised his hand and suddenly they could see through one of the walls into a small room. In the room a little boy was bouncing a ball. He was bouncing it in rhythm, and the walls of his little cell seemed to pulse with the rhythm of the ball. And each time the ball bounced he screamed as though he were in pain.
   “That’s the little boy we saw this afternoon,” Calvin said sharply, “the little boy who wasn’t bouncing the ball like the others.”
   Charles Wallace giggled again. “Yes. Every once in a while there’s a little trouble with cooperation, but it’s easily taken care of. After today he’ll never desire to deviate again. Ah, here we are.”

I have highlighted some passages above and I am struggling with where to start.

Let's tackle the obvious one: I'm not sure how you write "Nobody suffers here" a couple paragraphs above a boy being tortured and screaming in agony. Editors! They will catch things like this! Okay, the scene establishes IT as a hypocrite, but it's just weird that Calvin and Meg don't point their fingers and say "that is nobody suffering?" Instead we get Meg's generalized philosophy that happiness is meaningless without suffering which is a philosophy I've never found particularly compelling but one I find profoundly less so when it's being offered with wide-eyed sincerity to a torturer. There's a time for introspection and there's a time for outrage and if you mix those two up as an author, the scene goes all wrong.

Two: If the boy will "never desire to deviate again", then he desired to deviate before now, no? If he had desires of his own, then Camazotz is not "one mind" and individuals have not been "done away with". You may remember we had some problems with this last year: it's never clear if everyone on the planet is a mind-controlled puppet with IT piloting their bodies or if they're all just cowed into total obedience the likes of which Orwell's 1984 villains could only dream of. There's a number of ways IT can rule the planet and I'm good with all of them--terror, mind control, hypnosis, whatever--but I'd prefer to be told what is going on at some point, rather than be given contradictory clues.

In terms of the story, I don't suppose it really matters if everyone is merely obedient or if they're mind-controlled to a lesser or greater extent, but we're getting mixed signals as to what is happening and that's disorienting to me. "Everyone is one mind except for this kid but after today he won't want to be" is self-contradictory, not to mention seems odd in the context of a place where catching a cold warrants the death penalty. If people are that disposable to IT, why torture this kid into line? For the authoritarian jollies, I guess, but in that case why not quarantine flu sufferers in the Angry Bee Ward until they recover? That'll teach them a lesson about not taking their daily vitamins or something!

I want to pause here and note that this is all we see of the boy, and this is the only thing Calvin and Meg say about him being tortured:

   “That’s the little boy we saw this afternoon,” Calvin said sharply, “the little boy who wasn’t bouncing the ball like the others.”

That's it. That's all.

And I... god, I don't feel good about that. This is a kid's book, yes, written for a kid's audience; maybe they didn't want to dwell on the scene without upsetting the reader.

But Meg has been warbling around on the verge of tears for pages and proclaiming that she wants to go home and demanding her father and... she doesn't have a word for the little boy? L'Engle wrote a huge mouthful of philosophy about suffering and happiness and what constitutes a Lawful Evil utopia and Meg is only allowed to make some generalized objections and then fall silent in the face of actual suffering? Not just actual suffering, even, but actual suffering they may have caused--since they're not sure how IT found out about the boy but no one seemed to notice his antics until the Earthlings pointed it out and took it on themselves to investigate. There's no sorrow, no outrage, no guilt?

That little boy can't be much older than Charles Wallace, the boy Meg loves with all her heart. Love, you may remember, is Meg's superpower and will be used later to save Charles Wallace. But L'Engle didn't write a word in her mouth for this little boy. I don't know. I don't like it. It feels wrong, just from a characterization standpoint. It feels wrong from a plot arc standpoint. It especially feels wrong to immediately shuffle over from boy to Father:

   He moved rapidly down the corridor and again held up his hand to make the wall transparent. They looked into another small room or cell. In the center of it was a large, round, transparent column, and inside this column was a man.
   “FATHER!” Meg screamed.

Thus ends Chapter 8.


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