What happens when you revisit the woefully misremembered science fiction of your youth? Joe Howley (Latin teacher) and Johannah King-Slutzky (internet wraith/underachiever) asked adults to re-read their genre favorites from childhood. For the first in our Time Quartet series, we talked to bona fide adult Kate Franklin, an archaeologist who for the past seven years has worked for the Medieval Archaeology of the South Caucasus at the Oriental Institute (whew!) studying Medieval Armenia. We spoke with Kate via Gchat about how A Wrinkle In Time sparked her interest in archaeology, what the book says about faith and the unknowable, and why Charles Wallace may or may not be The Worst. The following conversation has been gently massaged for clarity.
JOHANNAH KING-SLUTZKY: Hello!
JOE HOWLEY: Hello! (That was me completing the third part of the harmony.)
KATE: I definitely heard those on ascending tones.
JOHANNAH: Okay, let’s jump into it. I think first of all we were hoping you could summarize your background a bit for The Toast readers.
KATE: I am an anthropological archaeologist (so, an anthropologist who works through excavations to understand human societies in the past as well as the present). I received my degree from the University of Chicago, and I have been working for the last 6 years in the Republic of Armenia. I study the late medieval period (AD 12th-15th centuries), when Armenia was a place in between crusader states, caliphates, Mongol empire, etc. And pertinent to science fiction, I study how people contextualize their action in society through the creation of worlds, whether in materiality, history, architectural space, or landscape. Put another way, I am interested in how all politics are contingent on getting people to imagine the world (and themselves in it) in particular ways.
JOE: I have about a thousand questions about that, but to start, when did you first read this book, and have you re-read it many times since then?
KATE: I was actually trying to remember when I first read it– I think it was in elementary school, perhaps third or fourth grade. And I have definitely not reread it since perhaps early middle school– so I was amazed at how much I remembered.
JOE: What was the experience of reading it again like? What struck you most? Did it feel very different?
KATE: Well, I have been significantly trained in the ‘art of reading’ since I was eight, so there were things I was able to recognize and analyze on a level I was just not operating at at that point. But this also helped me realize how profoundly the book affected me as a child– looking back, it’s like a primer in scientific realism and the limits of reason. About three quarters of the way through the book, I thought, that if it were to have one of those hacky 1980’s titles it would totally be “Margaret Murry and the Dark Cartesian Space Nightmare.” It speaks to one of the really interesting aspects of the book, that while it centers on a standard sci-fi premise (tessering/the tessaract) what the story really revolves around is the human capacity to deal with things they are incapable of understanding, and to meet them with wonder instead of fear.
JOE: I tend to think modern sci-fi has always struggled against the pull of making the story be about the science fictionality, as opposed to some aspect of the human experience.
KATE: Oh completely– and the best novels lose that struggle in my opinion. Does anyone really care how a warp drive works?
JOHANNAH: I don’t know, I actually do care about how warp drive works.
JOHANNAH: Something that was interesting to me about this book is that it’s really, really hard to visualize a lot of what she’s talking about, but then there are those illustrations about time wrinkling, with the ant and the skirt.
KATE: Exactly– the whole episode where Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which explain the tesseract is premised on exactly this, that you can operate in a universe that you know runs on principles beyond your comprehension. (And I also kind of want to know about warp drives. I mean, what is their FUEL? Which is why solutions like Spice in Dune are so interesting.)
JOE: She’s clearly dealing with a modern physics, but it also is an “in” for her religious interests.
KATE: And this conversation is totally paralleled in the Murry kitchen when Mrs./Dr. Murry explains to Meg that she can deal with the unknowable universe because she can deal with Charles Wallace, and so all of the universe which exceeds our understanding is calqued in the novel as love. Which is interesting for exactly the reason you bring up, Joe– for Descartes and other members of the Scottish enlightenment, this excess is bracketed and defined as “God.”
JOE: For a slim book, it’s just packed with terrifyingly big ideas.
JOHANNAH: Yes, I was really curious how much philosophy ML’E had read…
KATE: Charles Wallace is obviously a messianic character, and in the end it is love for the unworldly Charles Wallace that defeats IT.
KATE: The book as well reminded me of this quotation from Marie Curie, where she said that the scientist should regard science not as mechanical but as wondrous, that science should inspire delight as well as awe.
JOHANNAH: Do you have any thoughts on the relationship between the unnamable (like IT, and maybe Aunt Beast) and the unknowable in this book?
KATE: Oh I have thoughts for sure, which I want to preface by saying that as a kid I profoundly identified with Meg’s orientation to the world, and I still think that her orientation as protagonist is close to my own responses to her situations. She is so consistently UPSET by everything that is happening. (Another delightfully upset character that I loved as a kid: Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide.) It’s so easy to identify with her totally rational terror. She’s being taken on interstellar/ quantum voyages, and she needs someone to hold her hand and then she gets cranky and she’s the WORST at tessering.
Anyway, this relates to the unknowable– the conversation/argument she has with Aunt Beast is so wonderful. She can’t imagine how the Beasts can understand anything without vision, and is incapable of describing the world in other than visible terms. Aunt Beast calmly starts to dismantle Meg’s dyed-in-the-wool presumed association between Vision and Truth. As she says, they don’t know what things LOOK like, they know what things ARE like, which is a confrontation with an alternate world as violent for Meg as actually tessering between planets, I think.
JOE: I really like that one of Meg’s main problems at school is that she is TOO good at math, because she understands underlying phenomena and can’t handle the structures her pedagogical environment wants to overlay on them. In a way, she is just really not good at entertaining other people’s experiences of reality, even when they seem mundane or inferior.
KATE: Right? she is convinced that all fractions ‘really are’ decimal numbers, and can’t speak in alternative paradigms.
JOHANNAH: It also reminds me of Mrs. Who and co’s use of quotation– those are also shortcuts to describe things as they really are, like Meg’s math tricks, although Mrs. Who can and does entertain others’ realities.
KATE: In a way, when they are explaining the tesseract, they are also explaining their own plight– that they can only manifest according to the parameters of dimension and human perception– and in this case, we are the ant on the skirt.
JOE: I loved that interjection of the drawing into the text. It’s an alternative way of engaging with the idea that some discursive frames are inherently limited from talking about some ideas.
KATE: I know! I think L’Engle did this beautiful job of experiencing other dimensions viscerally real for readers. I love, love, love that tessering amounts to reducing one to a disembodied subjectivity (such foreshadowing for IT!) and this terrifies Meg– to be a mind without a body!
JOE: Yes, but Meg also finds tessering soothing, in a way, something comfortable.
KATE: I think so too! there is a peace to be without a body, without the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’ (to be Mrs. Who for a moment).
JOE: So we see the planet of Camazotz, but we really only just go to this one city, and I think at one point someone even says “in” rather than “on Camazotz.” It’s not really about a planet, of course, it’s about a society. This idea of distilling societies into their fundamental characteristics seems to be important to the project.
JOHANNAH: It’s a planet of hats.
KATE: Reading about Camazotz, it is hard not to put AWIT into context as a science fiction book written in the early 1960s.
JOE: Totally! the CENTRAL central intelligence is maybe laying it on a touch thick. It also reads to me as, like, what the sixties had to say about the fifties — the suburbs and conformity.
KATE: IT has a sort of laws of robotics-type-directive that manifests as the ‘for your own protection you will be harmed’ logic provided by the man with red eyes. ANYway– yes, the central argument of Meg’s inability to conform being her great strength in the battle against darkness.
JOHANNAH: Although the man with red eyes and IT scenes also reminded me quite a bit of Wizard of Oz (not a sixties production, obviously), which I hear is a common comparison. All things considered this book doesn’t seem very sixties-y at all, to me.
KATE: Hmm yes– I was always so creeped out by the part of the film Wizard of Oz where the gang is ‘shined up’ and Dorothy asks if they can dye her eyes to match her frock. What the hell? Such shades of 1930s social commentary. It’s terrifying because it’s so jolly– everyone singing in unison! Horses of different colours!
JOHANNAH: I love that scene. To me, IT seems very “Wizard”-y (but eviler), and their journey to the CCIA is very Emerald City.
KATE: Well the foyer IS green, as is the lighting, right?
JOHANNAH: Yep! And there are these big, shiny facades on the buildings.
KATE: Sort of like of L. Frank Baum designed East Berlin.
JOE: Something about it that does seem sixties to me is the careful decision to make Mrs. Murry the real equal of her husband — multiple doctorates, very intelligent — but also forced into the traditional woman’s domesticity by necessity. I’m really interested in that stretch of the 20th century where we were letting women get Ph.D.’s but were not really giving them jobs. Kate, I don’t quite know what the gender politics are like in your field of academia, but did you get anything out of that character on this reading?
KATE: Heavens yes. Like, when she’s out in her lab cooking stew on her bunsen burner?
JOE: Yeah! Even her dumb male child, one of the twins, doesn’t like her mixing cooking and science.
KATE: Also, not to knock a beloved book, but I was (for obvious personal reasons) paying way more attention to Mrs. Murry on this second reading, and I was surprised that we learn way more about what she looks like than about, say what her research is about. We learn that she is a knockout beauty, which is terrifying to poor, ugly duckling Meg (but don’t worry! she was ugly when she was young too!)
JOHANNAH: (Ungggg, Joe, it hurts me to hear you call Sandy/Dennys “dumb male child,” I can’t wait for you to read the rest of the quartet.) Kate: Yes, that drove me so nuts when I was a kid!
KATE: (I knowww, Sandy and Dennys get so much better.)
JOHANNAH: Something I am curious about for your and other readers’ experience of this book is: did any of the children make you particularly angry/anxious/competitive? Or Mrs. Murry, too, I guess. And the dad. Any of the humans.
KATE: Oh hell yes. Full disclosure: I am a middle child with two brothers, so Meg’s experience as being the ‘late bloomer’, who is sub-par at both sports and critical reasoning (or whatever it is Charles Wallace does) totally resonates. But she’s good at math! that’s something! Like, <sad trombone> Meg’s a math genius. And yes, not to spoil the later books, but the Psionic love-fest that Calvin (sigh) and Charles Wallace have just leaves her in the dark.
JOE: Calvin! SIGH!
JOHANNAH: Fucking Calvin. Calvin is the guy who would be the milquetoast main character in any other book. He is the Buffy of the group.
KATE: Him and his freckles and his smooth talk.
JOHANNAH: Yeah he’s pretty on top of it in the smooth talk department considering I have always imagined him as extremely physically awkward.
KATE: Right? But just get a girl in the moonlight and tell her that some day she’ll be as hot as her mom and as good at geography as her baby brother, and the panties really drop.
JOE: And then you can just lay a big smooch on her in some alien cave.
KATE: Make sure to tell her she’s really gorgeous when she takes off her glasses.
JOE: Oh yeah, good grief. By the way, Johannah had to point out to me that he kisses her. I somehow missed that, maybe because it was like, one sentence, with all the emotional implications elided by the narrator.
KATE: Yeah she’s surrounded by beasts and about to DIE and he just plants one on her. I could feel Aunt Beast doing the tentacular equivalent of an eye-roll.
JOHANNAH: Nah, Aunt Beast is into it.
JOE: Aunt Beast loves to… well, not watch, I guess.
KATE: Just be around?
JOE: Yeah, just hang out.
KATE: To really KNOW.
That whole paragraph was just a whiplash of mortal and carnal anxiety in my adolescent body. Like, can you imagine? Late-bloomer Meg gets ‘roughly’ pulled into a firm deep smooch by a boy with unexplained powers and then moments later her newly-discovered tingly girlbody is winked from existence.
JOHANNAH: I think you can learn a lot about a person by who she resents in A Wrinkle in Time.
KATE: No wonder her disembodied brain finds tessering relaxing.
I still kind of think Charles Wallace is an asshole.
JOE: Yeah, again, he’d be the hero of a different kind of story.
JOHANNAH: I‘m still not on board with the idea that Meg finds tessering relaxing, but it is definitely an idea I will consider…
KATE: But I think that since I was eight I have just met so, so many Charles Wallaces.
(Johannah I’m not sure about that either)
JOHANNAH: So you resented Charles Wallace mainly?
JOE: (I just checked that passage: she finds it a “relief” because she has just been in the two-dimensional world, so I guess I can’t put too much pressure on the text there.)
Kate, I love that you feel like you have met so many Charles Wallaces. You mean in terms of their arrogance in their own intelligence? Is this a consequence of being in academia?
KATE: Oh yeah. Charles Wallace’s kind patience with all the muggles he has to deal with every day, including his bimbo Ph.D. mom and his precious precious sister. Academia is certainly full of people who for one reason or another consider themselves to be living in a state of remove from human society.
JOHANNAH: See, for me that’s Calvin. Charles Wallace doesn’t seem that patient with muggles, he just avoids them and hides as a simpleton, whereas Calvin is very loving and supportive in a way that pisses me the fuck off.
KATE: True, they have similar solutions for the same problem– but if I were Meg I would still want to punch him all the time. I want to punch both of them
JOHANNAH: I was super competitive with Charles Wallace but always wanted to be him and cherished him. I also felt insecure because he was so good at cooking! And Meg, too. Like, she puts chopped pickles in her tuna salad at 3am? She is killing it.
JOE: Charles Wallace has only the flaw of pride. He is very caring and nice. He looks after Meg.
KATE: Sure, if they all pattered down to the kitchen to make me hot chocolate it would be easy.
JOE: You said you think this book was your first introduction to scientific thought. I know this question has baggage in archaeology, but do you identify as a scientist?
KATE: Sure. I do identify as a scientist (even if in mixed company I add the gratuitous ‘Social’ to the front of it) but I have very, perhaps, poetic ideas about what science is and what it does for us as humans. I think science is about pulling at threads in the seemingly-intact fabric of what we ‘know’ about the world, and finding wonder behind that. The relation that this process bears to things that are ‘factually, visibly true’ is, as you guys almost certainly know, more convoluted than most people think.
JOE: And you’d say this book played a part in that?
KATE: This book absolutely played a part. I think a major part of science fiction is the stated or implicit questioning of the absolute order of the world. At it’s most basic, this is also the premise of the science of anthropology– the possibility of other, very real ‘worlds’ that are wonderful, though also terrifying. Many of the key texts in anthropology read like Meg’s conversation with Aunt Beast. What leaps immediately to mind is EE Evans-Pritchard’s Magic, Witchcraft and Oracles among the Azande. More specific to archaeology, I am thinking a lot right now about how central vision is to our valuation of truth/fact, and to the knowability of things. *Kate thinks for a moment about the nature of god*
JOE: I fulfilled one of my science reqs as an undergraduate with “applied physics in archaeology.” I got a huge kick out of all these ways of “looking” at artefacts in ways other than the visual.
KATE: The scene on Uriel where Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace are riding around on Mrs. Whatsit and surrounded by beings who are just thrumming and gargling with the Music of the Spheres or whatever, and the children want to know ‘what they are singing’- such a prosaic, meat-dimensional thing to ask! And Calvin can kiiind of get it, and Charles Wallace because he is a transcendental mutant can almost hear it– but Mrs. Whatsit ‘translates’ anyway– and it’s a hymn of praise, which seems, to me, like a fairly explicit argument that, in the literary tradition that the Mrs.’s draw on to make themselves comprehensible (oh, the ill fittingness of words) this excess of understanding, this wonder that lies beyond the ability of the human mind to grasp the working of the universe, is called God.
JOE: Yeah, one of my favorite SF-y things about the book is the idea that there is this absolute reality that manifests differently in different places, given different ways of understanding the world. The dark thing is different everywhere it appears, and God is just the local human name for that great wonder. It articulates a framework in which Christianity has a place, but is not trying to argue for Christianity as a dominant framework. And I’m okay with it!
KATE: I remember reading this book, and the sequels, and feeling like I had heard a secret about the world it helped me deal with… whatever I was dealing with as a kid… though probably made me slightly insufferable in my own, wonderful way. I actually brought up Aunt Beast once during an.. ahem.. romantic encounter… that was highly awkward.
JOHANNAH: I have always thought Aunt Beast was a little sexual.
JOE: Certainly Meg’s encounter with Aunt Beast is very tactile. And there’s also the intimacy of Aunt Beast reading her mind, and the sort of flirty-ish attempt to put a name to their relationship. What I’m saying is, alt.fan.AWIT.slash.meg-aunt_beast.
JOHANNAH: I ship it.
JOE: Whoa, late breaking news friends: The director of Frozen is writing the screenplay adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. (I discovered this while googling for AWIT fanfic.)
JOHANNAH: Did you find any good Aunt Beast fanfic? Actually I would also consider Meg and Calvin fanfic because I support family values.
KATE: Sorry I am ALSO distracted by AWIT fanfic now, there goes my evening.
JOE: This is like a whole OTHER Toast series.
JOHANNAH: Mallory! The Toast needs some Wrinkle in Time Femslash Friday.
KATE: Some Ixchel Aunt Beast slash would be so like, post-gender.
JOE: Ever since I learned there is hardcore Giving Tree slash, I just expect the worst.