A Wrinkle in Time: Analyzed Science

This article was originally published as a part of the Decoding the Newbery series with The Book Smugglers, in September 2015.

…it was not Mrs. Whatsit herself that she was seeing at all. The complete, the true Mrs. Whatsit, Meg realized, was beyond human understanding. What she saw was only the game Mrs. Whatsit was playing. It was an amusing and charming game, a game full of both laughter and comfort, but it was only the tiniest facet of all the things Mrs. Whatsit could be.
— A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 6, "The Happy Medium"

Mysterious witches who metamorphose into creatures of light. An oracular Medium who can behold all creation through her crystal ball, but never leave her cave. Characters who speak purely in riddles and poetry. Humans cast off an evil spell with words of their own. Is this fantasy? Nope. It’s science fiction. These images shape up A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle’s science fiction classic, and the Newbery Winner for 1964.

A Wrinkle in Time opens the Time Quartet (or Quintet, depending on how indulgent one feels towards the blundering, repetitive An Acceptable Time). This series relates the adventures of the Murry family as they travel through space-time, and fight the forces of evil. Despite what might seem like a generic premise, the Time Quartet is anything but predictable. Installments in the series vary widely in scope and action – not to mention in the cosmological trappings that surround the Murrys. The “unicorn” in A Swiftly Tilting Planet is nothing like the “unicorns” in Many Waters. Continuity is scarce, in other words. I read A Wind in the Door before I read Wrinkle and had no idea that Wind was a sequel.

This is by no means intended as a slight. In our current media landscape, a viewer can get sick of excessive continuity. Following the successes of Harry PotterGame of Thrones, and Lost, new works tend to pack every detail with meaning, and with the intrigue of possible payoff. Continuity has become a standard currency by which to judge new works. Every last molecule must be consistent and accounted for—the better to turn into a wiki article, my dear!

L’Engle passed away in 2007, but if she were alive today, I can only imagine her laughing at such scrabbling for neatness. In a cosmos as large, strange, and wonderful as what she envisioned—as the one that we live in—why should unicorns be the same everywhere? Even in our little solar system, no two planets are exactly alike. L’Engle’s science fiction has ample room for wonder.

But we’ll get back to her science in a minute. Let’s go to the Breakdown

In a Small Town somewhere in New England, Kid Hero Meg Murry is barely hanging on. As if doing terribly in school and worrying about her missing physicist father weren’t bad enough, she also gets to fret as her supergenius little brother, Charles Wallace, begins hanging out with the wrong crowd. This “crowd” is the eccentric triad of Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which. In her own way, each of these women is a very Wise Soul.

In short order, the Mrs. W’s whisk Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe off of Earth. (Calvin is the team communicator, and Meg’s Romantic interest). The children become aliens on one strange planet after another, and they must quickly learn to face the tangible power of Evil at work in their universe.

For this book, our heroes will meet Evil on the planet Camazotz, whose dreadful conformity spells out L’Engle’s Social Issue very clearly. (Trivia: this past April, three cut pages from the manuscript of Wrinkle reveal that L’Engle discussed the issue in greater depth, and asked still-pertinent questions about security versus freedom.) Notably for a work of the ongoing Cold War, she does not exonerate the United States of collective guilt. Even in small-town America—or especially there—mistrust and paranoia will find fertile ground to work. Wherever abused children like Calvin are forced to grin and pretend their misery is normalcy, wherever unconventional minds such as Meg’s and Charles Wallace’s are met with hatred, sooner or later it will lead to the one mind, the sole approved mind, IT, controlling all in a neverending paroxysm of contempt.

IT ends up providing (for the readers) a particularly fascinating connection with a later work of Newbery-winning science fiction. The Man With Red Eyes, ITs human relations avatar, offers his shpiel to the Earthlings by telling them that “I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.” These could easily be the words of The Giver, the title character of Lois Lowry’s 1993 masterpiece. Only in Lowry’s utopia, we meet it from the inside, and the Giver has doubts. Lowry and L’Engle are carrying on a conversation about choice and free will, separated by thirty years and maybe a planet or two. We’re all privileged enough to listen in.

If the “science” fiction on display in Wrinkle seems more fantastical than factual, I’d argue that it works. She’s part of a fine tradition. For instance, in Star Wars, the great turns in the story manifest alongside spiritual events—whether breakdowns or epiphanies. L’Engle is putting her own Christian faith on clear display, and sees no dissonance between the deaths of stars and the sacrifice of martyrs.

And then, by the same token, L’Engle manages to sell the possibility that her mechanics only looks like “magic” because of the narrator’s limited, human perspective. Mrs. Witch knowingly pretends to be… well, a witch, because that’s easier for the children to understand. Meg never sufficiently analyzes the science, and therefore it looks like magic.

Storm Reid as Meg Murry in the DuVernay adaptation of  A Wrinkle in Time .

Storm Reid as Meg Murry in the DuVernay adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time.

Speaking of whom, Meg is one of my favorite YA heroines of all time. I may dislike the way that the narrative frequently infantilizes her, and I may disagree with her development in L’Engle’s later books, but as an angry, confused, self-loathing teenage girl… talk about true-to-life. You could say I recognize her from my middle school mirror.

But, anyone can write an angsty teenage girl. What makes the difference is, L’Engle knows and respects that angry and lost young Meg is only the tiniest facet of all that Meg can be: a gifted mathematical genius, a brave adventurer, a loving sister, a Namer with the power to shape creation by her own voice (that’s from Wind). Again, there’s no dissonance between any of these parts.

Now, I’m not saying that A Wrinkle in Time is perfect, by any means. Well-written as Meg is, she has next to no agency for most of the story – moving through a tesseract is something she endures rather than learns to do for herself. The Power of Love resolution can appear as a cop-out to readers expecting something more confrontational. The action is dreamlike, with a sudden start and end to the adventuring; characters share deep secrets and understanding within minutes of meeting one another. And Charles Wallace gets more irritating as the years go on. I buy Meg’s love for him, but I don’t buy him as a human being, supergenius or no. The 2003 made-for-TV adaptation was awful in almost every way, but I did appreciate their attempts to make Charles Wallace seem more like a normal kid who happens to have a post doctorate reading level.

Perhaps A Wrinkle In Time is dated, by its slang, its science, and its politics (although the latter hasn’t aged all that badly). Maybe it isn’t the vanguard of a deeply planned series, where every installment is predictably exciting. Maybe its “science” is more like gazing up at the Milky Way than taking an astronomy exam. But what Madeleine L’Engle has created is a timeless tour de force across space, a journey which has affected so many, I think, because it arises from her personal faith and convictions, all anchored by Meg. Despite its imperfections, this novel, that elegantly bridges the gap between fantasy and science fiction, has staying power.