Time Quintet: Nonsensical Backstories and Other Impossible Things Before Breakfast

[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

Meg continues to be unconscious while Calvin and Father infodump over her, and I must say this irks me.

Maybe it shouldn't irk me. Calvin's talent, after all, is communication so perhaps it is appropriate that he's the one to interrogate Mr Murry for information along the usual axes of who, what, when, why, et cetera. But it vexes me that Meg has come all this way to meet with her father and now she isn't the one asking him questions about why he left her and her mother and her brothers. That job is left over for her boyfriend while she politely listens from the security of her magical coma.

   Calvin: “Sir, why were you on Camazotz at all? Was there a particular reason for going there?”
   Her father, with a frigid laugh: “Going to Camazotz was a complete accident. I never intended even to leave our own solar system. I was heading for Mars. Tessering is even more complicated than we had expected.”

That's all we get about that and I'm left tilting my head like a confused puppy.

The history of Mars observation is a little unclear on the exact timeline of when we knew what (let alone how available that information was to a public who lacked internet and Wikipedia), but I'm pretty sure we knew by 1962 that Mars' atmosphere wasn't breathable by humans and that this information would have been available to L'Engle. What was Mr Murry planning to use for air when he arrived on Mars? Did he tesser away from Earth dressed in an astronaut's outfit with a full tank of oxygen coming along for the ride? Was the plan for him to tesser back to Earth before his air ran out? If that was the plan, why didn't he tesser back from Camazotz when it clearly wasn't Mars?

This novel is supposed to be science fiction, but there's no science in this fiction and it's somewhat distressing to me at times. What was the scientific protocol for this experiment? Did they have Murry tesser from one room to another, safely building up distance over time until he could effortlessly pop into secret government testing facilities scattered all over the United States? Or was "to Mars!" their first major experiment with this new... technology? super-power? (It's never clear to me if Murry needed a mechanical boost--like, say, a Star Trek teleporter--to tesser himself away from Earth or if this is a "close your eyes and think happy thoughts" personal power like flying in Peter Pan.)

If Mars was their first major experiment, one has to ask... why? Tessering in and of itself is its own valid and valuable scientific discovery: think of the implications if anyone could close their eyes and teleport to anywhere on earth at will! Why does Mars need to be added to this? Sending tessering pupils to Mars--a notoriously remote place where no one will be on hand to help them if they're injured by the effort of traveling there--seems risky and wasteful in addition to strangely... pointless? Teleporting superpowers exist; who cares about the nearest planet in the face of that upheaval? I mean, yes, eventually we'll want to use those powers to get to Mars and the Moon and whatnot, but there are much more immediate practical applications available than "to space!"

   Calvin: “Sir, how was IT able to get Charles Wallace before it got Meg and me?”
   Her father: “From what you’ve told me it’s because Charles Wallace thought he could deliberately go into IT and return. He trusted too much to his own strength—listen!—I think the heartbeat is getting stronger!”
   His words no longer sounded to her quite as frozen. Was it his words that were ice, or her ears? Why did she hear only her father and Calvin? Why didn’t Charles Wallace speak?

Why... why is Calvin asking this question?

This makes no sense; he knows why IT "got" Charles Wallace. He was there. He was there and he watched it happen and then he tried to use magic words to pull Charles back out again and it almost worked except that it didn't. Calvin knows exactly what happened--and Murry shouldn't because he refused to listen to Meg when she tried to explain. So Calvin doesn't need this knowledge and Murry shouldn't have it. The roles here are swapped around in a way that doesn't make sense and seems only to exist in order to lend Murry an air of authority and Knowing Things after a full chapter spent not-knowing things and not-believing Meg when she tried to enlighten him about those things.

   Silence. A long silence. Then Calvin’s voice again: “Can’t we do anything? Can’t we look for help? Do we just have to go on waiting?”
   Her father: “We can’t leave her. And we must stay together. We must not be afraid to take time.”
   Calvin: “You mean we were? We rushed into things on Camazotz too fast, and Charles Wallace rushed in too fast, and that’s why he got caught?”
   “Maybe. I’m not sure. I don’t know enough yet. Time is different on Camazotz, anyhow. Our time, inadequate though it is, at least is straightforward. It may not be even fully one-dimensional, because it can’t move back and forth on its line, only ahead; but at least it’s consistent in its direction. Time on Camazotz seems to be inverted, turned in on itself. So I have no idea whether I was imprisoned in that column for centuries or only for minutes.” Silence for a moment. Then her father’s voice again.

I... what. I think I have a headache now.

The Wonder Kids did rush into danger--I think we're all in agreement on that--but what isn't clear is what they were supposed to do instead. Letting your protagonists screw up and fail is all well and good, but there needs to be an obvious alternative to their actions because otherwise it lessens the impact of their choices being their fault. It was probably very foolish for them to walk up to the door of the Obviously Evil Building and ask to speak to whoever was in charge, but would staying out in the town have realistically led to any different outcomes? The children would most likely have been turned in by a resident and handed over to the Obviously Evil Building for processing, at which point everything would have played out the same. So I'm not inclined to scold the children for their direct approach. If anyone here is to blame, it's the angels for not giving clearer guidance on what to do.

Then Murry starts talking about time on Camazotz being inverted and turned in on itself and he was in that column for centuries (woobie alert!) and... that's not how time works? Time is complicated and not well understood, yes, but Wikipedia has a nice working definition of time as "the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future." The Camazotz inhabitants--including Murry--continued existing and experiencing events in irreversible succession. What Murry is describing is time deprivation, which is a thing!, and which might well make it hard for him to know how long he was in that pillar. But that's not the same thing as "inverted" time. I've no idea how one might experience that--I would think inverted time would cause events to happen backwards, which... how?

This bothers me for another reason: Mr Murry is supposed to be a scientist. Science is not the art of just asserting bullshit technobabble without any evidence upon which to rest your theories. If Murry believes time behaves on Camazotz in a manner which should be impossible according to the physics he was taught in school, he should be providing examples of events which caused him to reevaluate what he thinks he knows. He should also probably be either effusively excited (the universe is weirder than we realize!) or shaken to the core by the realization that everything he's ever learned is wrong (those multiple Ph.Ds he has aren't worth the paper they're printed on).

I complained about this in a previous chapter re: Murry being flat and one-dimensional. Perhaps I'm being uncharitable and his flatness is meant to be a realistic portrayal of a prisoner with severe PTSD and depression, but I don't get the impression that this was L'Engle's intent. We're not meant to see Murry as defeated--he held out against IT, after all, and helped the children do the same--but neither do we see any real passion in the man. Think about how much competition there would be for his multiple Ph.D programs, and then to be selected for inclusion in a top secret government research program on teleportation. By all rights, Murry should be a scientist with drive. He should be near-fanatical in his pursuit of the unknown, given who he is and what he had to overcome just to be here. Instead, he's this bland milquetoast of a blank slate, ho-humming his way through his lines. Oh, yeah, Camazotz? Time's, like, backwards there. Or something. Whatever. Who cares. Not like it matters.

   [...] Calvin: “About your project, sir. Were you on it alone?”
   Her father: “Oh, no. There were half a dozen of us working on it and I daresay a number of others we don’t know about. Certainly we weren’t the only nation to investigate along that line. It’s not really a new idea. But we did try very hard not to let it be known abroad that we were trying to make it practicable.”
   “Did you come to Camazotz alone? Or were there others with you?”
   “I came alone. You see, Calvin, there was no way to try it out ahead with rats or monkeys or dogs. And we had no idea whether it would really work or whether it would be complete bodily disintegration. Playing with time and space is a dangerous game.”

Well, that answers my question that they didn't start with Murry tessering into another room--or, to be really extreme, to Ohio--for a first attempt. Apparently they just packed people into the tesser-porter device (again, assuming there even was a device*) and set the coordinates to Mars. Why? WHY? I really demand to know what the fuck was the intent here. If they genuinely didn't know whether the result would be complete bodily disintegration, why wouldn't you send someone to Ohio first in order to rule that out? Because if you send someone to Mars and they don't come back, you've got no idea why they didn't come back--there's too many variables there for what could've gone wrong.

* It really bugs me that we don't know how tessering was accomplished by the humans. I don't mean the nitty-gritty metaphysics--I will happily accept impossible superpowers!--but I want to know how Murry experienced the event. Presumably there is a personal, individual aspect to tessering since (a) they couldn't send animals and (b) he intended to be able to return under his own power without having to build a return-teleporter from Mars rocks in order to get back to Earth. But if tessering is something a human can learn to do (or unlock from within) (or whatever) then how did Murry gain this power? Did he drink a science serum? Meditate with a monk? Pray to the right god? Again: I'm willing to accept any or all of these, I just want to know how Murry thinks he gained this ability.

And if the ability was learned, why do they know so little about it? How can there have been no practice runs from room to room, or indeed from New Mexico to Ohio? It doesn't make sense that Murry spent years training (how?) to tesser, only for everyone to nervously gather around him on the big day, not knowing if his first tesser would work or just disintegrate him. And if it did work, the plan was for him to show up on Mars with no way to survive or return home except a perfect tesser back. One they weren't sure he could make because he hadn't, up to that point, made any tessers at all.


   “But why you, sir?”
   “I wasn’t the first. We drew straws, and I was second.”
   “What happened to the first man?”
   “We don’t—look! Did her eyelids move?” Silence. Then: “No. It was only a shadow.”
   But I did blink, Meg tried to tell them. I’m sure I did. And I can hear you! Do something!
   But there was only another long silence, during which perhaps they were looking at her, watching for another shadow, another flicker. Then she heard her father’s voice again, quiet, a little warmer, more like his own voice. “We drew straws, and I was second. We know Hank went. We saw him go. We saw him vanish right in front of the rest of us. He was there and then he wasn’t. We were to wait for a year for his return or for some message. We waited. Nothing.”

"We know Hank went... We saw him vanish" doesn't make sense when one of the expected outcomes was "bodily disintegration". What I am saying is that, as presented by Murry here, there isn't a lot of observable difference between "successful tesser" and "unsuccessful tesser" because they both end up with Hank disappearing forever. Either he disintegrated or he's on Mars or he's literally anywhere else in the universe. You can't really mark that down as a win or a lose either way. I guess they wrote "further observation needed" and chucked Murry into the queue to go next. How... scientific.

By the by, what kind of "message" were they expecting back from Mars? Was Hank supposed to go outside and draw a great big message in the ground for telescopes to pick up? Did he take an enormous radio with him? Was this scientific experiment conducted with a Ouija board and they expected Hank to astral plane his way back in order to report? (Hank, if you can hear us, rap three times on the table!) Like, this is supposed to be a tense scene about poor doomed Hank but I cannot concentrate on doomed Hank when I am struggling to understand how the hell he was supposed to get a "message" to Earth?! By parcel post?!

   Calvin, his voice cracking: “Jeepers, sir. You must have been in sort of a flap.”
   Her father: “Yes. It’s a frightening as well as an exciting thing to discover that matter and energy are the same thing, that size is an illusion, and that time is a material substance. We can know this, but it’s far more than we can understand with our puny little brains. I think you will be able to comprehend far more than I. And Charles Wallace even more than you.”

As Murry sounds neither frightened nor excited, this paragraph unintentionally made me laugh.

More things that irritate me: It annoys that Murry ranks the capacity for human understanding as himself, then Calvin (a boy he has known for less than an hour), then his son (who is essentially a total stranger to him at this point). There's a point where acknowledging the potential of youth edges into fetishization and we have reached that moment. If Murry's multiple Ph. Ds, years of experience and training, and overall superior body of knowledge leave him less equipped to understand the nature of the universe than a randomly selected high school student, then this isn't Science we're dealing with; it's Magic or Religion or both and we just need to say so and get on with it.

   “Yes, but what happened, please, sir, after the first man?”
   Meg could hear her father sigh. “Then it was my turn. I went. And here I am. A wiser and a humbler man. I’m sure I haven’t been gone two years. Now that you’ve come I have some hope that I may be able to return in time. One thing I have to tell the others is that we know nothing.”

I don't. What.

Not more than a few sentences ago, Murry was saying that he had no sense whatsoever of how much time had passed in captivity: "I have no idea whether I was imprisoned in that column for centuries or only for minute." Everyone got that? He could have been on Camazotz for hundreds of years or for a matter of minutes. So why is he now so "sure" that he hasn't "been gone two years"? What is he basing that on? Does he have an internal clock or doesn't he? He can't be both time-deprived and miraculously aware of how much Earth time passed while he was on a completely different planet with a completely different orbit and revolution and therefore completely different concepts of earth-bounded measurement units like "days" and "years".

There's some citation needed, too, on Murry being wiser and humbler, since everything we've seen of him so far has been him failing to listen to Meg because she's just a girl-child. (Oh, but he totes believes that The Youth can understand the universe better than he. Just not so much that it makes him do inconvenient things like "listen to your daughter" and "consider she might know more about this situation than you do".) And I'm not quite catching what is so urgent about getting home and telling the other scientists that they don't know what they're doing; I would think that should be clear to them already, given that Murry and Hank have been missing for years.

Here's a fun question: has a third (or even fourth) participant been sent off, the way Murry was sent after Hank failed to return? It would actually be far more interesting to me if Murry's motivation to hurry home was to keep the next person on the list from tessering into the unknown.

   Calvin: “What do you mean, sir?”
   Her father: “Just what I say. We’re children playing with dynamite. In our mad rush we’ve plunged into this before—”

This is a mistake authors make: they forget that characters other than their characters exist. This is especially prevalent in Christian fiction which is trying to make a Larger Point: Murry's desire to rush back home with a Message is analogous to evangelism. He has to warn humanity that Space Satan exists and wants to enslave our Space Souls on Communist Russia Planet. Only by embracing Space Jesus and Enlightenment can we fight back the Space Darkness and be safe.

It would be far more compelling if Murry's desire to rush home had been "because Julia was next on the list and she's got three kids and a dog at home and I don't want her to land on Camazotz to be tortured the way I was so I have to warn them that our coordinates are seriously wrong." That would be a personal reason, and one which (ironically) would make L'Engle's world seem more populated than this larger evangelical 'message' which Murry wants to take back to *waves hand* people.

In a way, it's a shame that L'Engle didn't do more with this because the 'message' metaphor really is inserted here without any sort of foundation. Murry can't go back and warn Earth about Space Satan, because Murry's work is classified. He's going to go back and rave to whoever is assigned to debrief him about Space Satan and Communist Russia Planet, and all that is going to be taken down in a memo to be stamped "top secret" and stuck in a drawer for the rest of eternity. Even if Murry decided to go rogue and tell the world on national television--and even if anyone believed his evidence-free ramblings about inverted time and space brains--spreading the knowledge that Space Satan exists and you can get to him by tessering would more likely speed up people popping into Camazotz to take a peek, rather than leaving well enough alone. Murry only ended up there by sheer accident, after all.

It is reasonable for Murry to want to get back and warn the others that their current approach doesn't work, of course, and it would additionally be very realistic if he sought to mount a of campaign to help the Camazotzians. (One wonders whether Murry could tesser back to the planet with a few gallons of fertilizer and a copy of an anarchist cookbook. Giant brains are surely combustible.) But those goals seek to do something, and are at odds with Murry's vague "I have to stop them because this is dangerous and we know nothing" anti-goal. Murry already embraced that this was dangerous and they knew nothing; one possible tessering outcome he had accepted for himself was total annihilation. If anything, thanks to him they now know way more about tessering than they did--so why is he talking about it like they're ignorant children playing with dynamite? That ship has sailed, is my point: they were ignorant children playing with dynamite and he was totally chill with that. Now they're slightly-less ignorant children.

What's more, this is highlighting an issue I have with the dynamics of this experiment. They "drew straws" and went in a manner which seems almost unwilling. The description is ambiguous, but it doesn't sound like Murry was drawing straws excitedly hoping to go first; it reads more like the kind of drawing straws you do when you don't have a volunteer but somebody needs to defy death to lower themselves into the active volcano and throw the switch which restarts the oxygen generator that keeps everyone alive. It doesn't read like everyone was champing at the bit to go first and the straws were used to decide an order without favoritism coming into play.

The thing is, when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins drew straws to determine who would land on the moon and who would stay in orbit, Collins drew the short straw to stay in orbit because staying behind was the "bad" job in that situation. Scientists and explorers sign on to dangerous jobs because they want to explore. The folks who don't want to explore just... don't sign on to these jobs. Could Murry not get any other work with his multiple Ph. Ds, such that he's unwillingly and with a heavy heart tessering off into the unknown, sorrowfully clutching the short straw that doomed him? Again there's this weird sense that this "science fiction" novel doesn't understand science or science fiction. If Murry didn't want to tesser, he shouldn't have been on the project! Or he should have quit! Instead he apparently signed up for a project he had no faith in, drew straws for a job he didn't want to do, and went stoically to the gallows wishing he had literally any other option available to him. That makes no sense.

It defies imagination that the government couldn't find a willing group of tesser volunteers who wanted to explore the galaxy. Who had to be forced to wait the full year to see if Hank would return, rather than raring off after him. Who drew straws to determine order because everyone wanted to go first, rather than last-or-ideally-not-at-all. Murry would have been a better character, a more active character, if he'd been characterized in this way. The fact that he wasn't doesn't just make him a passive, uninteresting character--it also breaks the entire concept, because we know science doesn't work this way and we know science fiction as a genre is about exploration and daring, not about drawing the short straw and being forced to visit new worlds against your will.**

** Unless you're Arthur Dent, in which case an exception will be issued at the service desk.


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