Time Quintet: Thousands of Centuries

[Wrinkle Content Note: Fascism, Hypnotism, Captivity]

Wrinkle Recap: After their confrontation with IT went badly, Mr Murry teleported himself, Meg, and Calvin away. Charles Wallace was left behind (but we don't know that yet).

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 10: Absolute Zero

When we last left our heroes, they were doing badly in the presence of IT and Calvin yelled for Murry to tesser them out of there as an escape. Murry was able to perform under intense pressure, probably because of the boost given by the magical glasses he was still wearing. Which, now that I type that seems odd to me; did Charles/IT just lose interest in those glasses once the plot moved on? I remember Charles lunging for the glasses, and Meg breaking through the prison wall with them and giving them to Murry, and Murry using them to escape with Meg but then... Charles/IT just lost interest?

*double checks* Yeah, that's... strange. I guess Charles/IT only wanted the glasses to keep Meg from Murry and once that ship had sailed IT didn't feel the need to close the barn door? But since the glasses are still infused with divine magic and since they (probably) helped Murry tesser the group off the planet, that was a major tactical error on IT's part. "Oh well, I guess you can keep the magic angel glasses, despite the fact that you're completely at my mercy in a building full of guards I own and it would be trivially easy to remove them from your possession." Chalk that up to villain hubris, I suppose.

Moving on with the recap, I've been deliberately not reading ahead and it's been a year or more since my initial re-read of the book in preparation for this deconstruction, so I don't remember how Calvin knew Murry can tesser at all and I'm not sure if we're going to recap that little piece of helpful insight in this chapter. I mean, we all knew Murry was studying tessering, of course, and it's the explanation for how he ended up on Camazotz; all that was part of the infodump about his government job and how he went missing. But I'd always assumed as a child (up to this point in the narrative) that the government had built a tesser machine with Murry's help and that he would need the help of that device in order to tesser--in other words, that a human like him didn't have the ability to tesser the way the angels do, without using any extra devices or props to help him.

Furthermore, I still maintain that's a reasonable assumption regarding the nature of his official work. Governments want machines that let them send whoever they want, whenever they want. They don't want to have to teach tessering to every person they want to send--that takes time and cuts them out of any kind of gatekeeping role. Once you teach a marine to tesser, you now have the opening scene of X-Men 2 on your hands with Nightcrawler bouncing around the White House any time he wants to. But if your marine needs a machine or an implant or something you can take away or restrict access to, then you don't have to worry about the long-term loyalty of your bouncy assassins. Despite all this, Calvin has apparently correctly intuited that the tesser work Murry was doing for the government was using the "clap your hands and fly" principle of scientific theory. Interesting.

What is more interesting is that Calvin didn't put this piece of the puzzle together until they were all nearly overwhelmed by IT. Tessering in the hallway outside seems like it would have been a lot safer and effective, but neither he nor Murry seemed to consider that an option. If they had, maybe they'd have been able to yank Charles with them rather than leaving him behind.

    The first sign of returning consciousness was cold. Then sound. She was aware of voices that seemed to be traveling through her across an arctic waste. Slowly the icy sounds cleared and she realized that the voices belonged to her father and Calvin. She did not hear Charles Wallace. She tried to open her eyes but the lids would not move. She tried to sit up, but she could not stir. She struggled to turn over, to move her hands, her feet, but nothing happened. She knew that she had a body, but it was as lifeless as marble.
   She heard Calvin’s frozen voice: “Her heart is beating so slowly—”
   Her father’s voice: “But it’s beating. She’s alive.”
   “We couldn’t find a heartbeat at all at first. We thought she was dead.”
   “And then we could feel her heart, very faintly, the beats very far apart. And then it got stronger. So all we have to do is wait.” Her father’s words sounded brittle in her ears, as though they were being chipped out of ice.
   Calvin: “Yes. You’re right, sir.”
   She wanted to call out to them. “I’m alive! I’m very much alive! Only I’ve been turned to stone.”
   But she could not call out anymore than she could move.

The most interesting thing about deconstructing this book has, for me, been seeing the evolution of YA tropes and writing styles. This whole sequence would be considered very bad writing here and now in the futuristic space age of 2018. For one, we're having a recap conversation that no two people would ever have ("As you know, Mr Murry, at first we thought Meg was dead." "Yes, we had that experience together which I well remember.") in order to bring the first-person character (and the reader) up to speed on what we missed while they were knocked out.

For two, we're having the angsty "I am immobile and near-death but I can still lucidly hear the sorrows of my loved ones" trope which was so recently and so badly deployed in Handbook for Mortals. This is one-hundred percent a wish-fulfillment trope, for better or worse; Meg has spent the entire book grappling with feelings of abandonment and being unloved in the wake of her father's absence, and she's unsure if the cute sporty smart Calvin has feelings for her the way she has feelings for him. Now she gets to hear how anguished they both were at nearly losing her. Yummy!

Wish-fulfillment tropes aren't bad! But they are considered somewhat bad form if they're not woven into the narrative in a way which justifies them. Here I'm honestly not sure why Meg needs to be laid so much lower by ITs malevolence (or by the tessering?) than the men were. Earlier in the book, Meg had the hardest time tessering and it tied a little uncomfortably in with her being the least brainy of the trio--Charles tessered like a natural and is Baby Jesus Einstein, and Calvin tessered like a champ and is the smartest in his class. Meg, who struggled the most with the tessering explanation, had trouble with the whole experience and I wonder if that wasn't intended to be a sort of Matrixy "the mind makes it real" or magicy "you have to believe/understand in order for it to work" trope.

Regardless, Meg's resistance to tessering didn't add a whole lot to the book and now that flaw (and her heightened weakness to ITs evil) has rendered the lone girl of the group frozen and near-death while the two men are doing fine. I would have minded this less if we'd been given some balance where Meg was good at something else that made Calvin sick. Like, for example, flying! Except once again, Charles and Calvin were awesome at flying while Meg was the one who nearly passed out and fell to her death because she had trouble keeping her oxygen flower held to her nose--the one job she'd been given to do whilst up there.

   Calvin’s voice again. “Anyhow you got her away from IT. You got us both away and we couldn’t have gone on holding out. IT’s so much more powerful and strong than—How did we stay out, sir? How did we manage as long as we did?”
   Her father: “Because IT’s completely unused to being refused. That’s the only reason I could keep from being absorbed, too. No mind has tried to hold out against IT for so many thousands of centuries that certain centers have become soft and atrophied through lack of use. If you hadn’t come to me when you did I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted. I was on the point of giving in.”
   Calvin: “Oh, no, sir—”
   Her father: “Yes. Nothing seemed important anymore but rest, and of course IT offered me complete rest. I had almost come to the conclusion that I was wrong to fight, that IT was right after all, and everything I believed in most passionately was nothing but a madman’s dream. But then you and Meg came in to me, broke through my prison, and hope and faith returned.”


First of all, IT hasn't been refused for "thousands of centuries"? No other mind has tried to hold out against IT in all that time, except you, Murry? Because I'm pretty sure we just saw a child bouncing a ball badly enough to require stuffing him in the torture room! Okay, maybe everyone who goes into the torture rooms just goes limp and doesn't try to resist any further, but, like... how does that work? There's enough resistance on Camazotz to require the existence of torture rooms, but not so much resistance that anyone tries to hold out once inside those torture rooms? Really?

What's more, I'm calling Science Fiction Writers Have No Sense of Scale on this one because do you know how many people that would be? There has not been one person on a planet full of people in the last [1,000s x 100 years = 100,000 years? did I math that right?] who tried to hold out against IT for even a short amount of time? None of those people ever once resisted from spite or anger or fear or feeling like they had nothing left or lose or just being too neuroatypical to mentally go limp when the pain-pulses started? Really? Murry put the exceptional American in the Exceptional American trope--he's unique among a number so high I can't begin to calculate it.

Second of all, remember when Meg broke into Murry's prison and he was all "oh hey, Megaroni, whatcha doing here" instead of being afraid he was hallucinating or that IT had broken his mind? I could kinda let that slide as a unique quirk of Murry's--maybe he's just so certain of his own faculties that he would never consider his senses might deceive him--but now he's telling us that he had convinced himself that everything he ever loved was all a dream. Meg breaking into that prison should have either prompted a moment of believing that she really had been a dream (because otherwise how could she be in his cell?) or a moment of oh-my-god-she's-real where he experienced the triumphal flood of proof. She's real! He's not mad! IT is wrong! There are four lights!

That moment should have been so much more than it was, and it irks me that we're being given a tragic "it's been awful and I'd nearly given up hope" tell-dump from Murry when nothing we saw of him indicated any of this. He seemed, at most, mildly tired and worn down when the children saved him. He did not seem like a man who had been almost completely convinced that the first thirty or forty years of his life had been a series of fevered imaginings unconnected from reality.

"Show, don't tell" gets overused as writing advice, but this is one case where it is applicable! If you present someone as "mildly tired" when released from prison, the reader is going to assume he was being kept as a sort of political-prisoner-with-benefits, like with those dictators who make "friends" with their high-profile prisoners and keep them in their homes for pleasant dinner conversation. We're not going to assume intense psychological tortures which almost completely unmade the prisoner's relationship with reality if you don't show us that. Murry is just too damn chipper and unaffected and confident and capable for me to believe his "I was on the verge of total surrender" story here.

Someone is going to say L'Engle didn't want to show a man on the edge of collapse in a kid's book, but I didn't make her write Murry's story as capital-t Tragic. Frankly, I think he makes more sense as a pampered political prisoner. For one, IT can't have much in the way of stimulating conversation available if everyone on the planet is a mindless puppet to ITs every whim. For two, if IT recognized that IT had grown weak from being resisted, then keeping Murry in order to beef up the old atrophied muscles is good self-improvement strategy--like installing one of those flex-it machines in your house as a personal gym. Indeed, as a child I'd assumed that was why Murry was being kept alive and not in the torture room (unlike the little boy with the ball), because Murry didn't read like someone who'd been broken within an inch of total capitulation and because it made sense for IT to keep him as a plaything / toy / exercise device. So, again, this is where "show, don't tell" is good advice.

This post has gotten longer than I intended, so I'm going to cut here.


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