Sunday, May 8, 2011

Meg and Eva's Excellent Adventures

Meg Murry and Eva Nine never had a chance to meet. What a pity; they would have gotten along famously. Their similar life experiences, shared dreams and common personalities could have formed the basis for a beautiful friendship. Alas, the two girls inhabited different worlds. Meg is the protagonist of Madeleine L'Engle's now-classic children's novel, A Wrinkle in Time, first published in 1962. Eva is the central character of Tony DiTerLizzi's new bestseller, The Search for WondLa. Each of these stories revolves around a young lady's struggle to find her way - and to achieve a noble goal - in an alien environment, after her known reality has been torn asunder. In the process, each girl learns valuable lessons and solidifies her own identity. Both novels are intriguing, thought-provoking and hard to put down. However, there the similarities end. The contrasts between L'Engle's family-oriented classic and DiTerLizzi's more solipsistic tale, products of very different eras, are noteworthy and possibly disturbing; still, there's plenty of room for optimism.

A Wrinkle in Time begins late one stormy night, when Meg Murry and family have trouble sleeping. They live, presumably, in a small New England community. Meg, her young brother named Charles Wallace and their biologist mother gather downstairs in the kitchen for a midnight snack. Their physicist father is missing. He was last known to have worked on a top secret project for the government, and had sent a stream of daily letters home. One day, the letters simply stopped arriving. Nasty rumors regarding his whereabouts began to surface, and Meg soon found herself the recipient of many insults and snide remarks at school, even from her principal. Meg's feisty, assertive personality enables her to survive the perpetual onslaught. She has a very nonconformist persona, often seeming irritable, and doesn't seem to enjoy being an outcast. (Who ever does?) She and her family hold high hopes for her father's eventual return. The family gathering is interrupted by a strange lady's appearance at the back door. A woman known only by the curious appellation "Mrs. Whatsit" visits the Murrys and tells Meg's mother that "there is such a thing as a tesseract." A tesseract, the reader soon learns, is a wrinkle in time - a means to shorten the interval between one moment and another, thereby enabling a form of time travel.

Apparently, tesseracts can also include wrinkles in space, because the next day, Meg, Charles and a new friend named Calvin are instantaneously transported (with the help of Mrs.Whatsit, and two additional companions, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who) to a strange planet where the three mysterious ladies seem to feel more at home. There, they are introduced to a dark nemesis residing somewhere in outer space, a "Black Thing" responsible for their father's disappearance and capable of consuming entire planets; consumed planets become "dark planets." Through a fantastical sequence of events, Meg, Charles and Calvin end up on a bizarre world known as Camazotz; the mysterious ladies have left them there with cryptic advice to help them on their quest for Dr. Murry.

The three children discover that Camazotz is inhabited by human beings who behave as a massive, robotic proletariat. All of their actions are timed and regulated according to a weird and rigid plan dictated by an unknown entity called "IT." They find a community resembling any late-twentieth-century suburban locale in the Western world; however, the people inhabiting the community appear bored and are unkind to strangers. It is a libertarian's worst nightmare. Children bounce balls in complete synchrony, with no emotional expressions, and front doors open and close simultaneously and on perfect schedule. The inhabitants of Camazotz live in absolute conformity, and their individual identities have been robbed from them.

Meg never abandons her hopes of finding her father and reuniting her family on Earth. With fierce determination, she combats all of the forces rallied against her: the cruel, stupid rigidity of Camazotz; the environs of several alien worlds; and her own negative personality traits. Through her struggles, Meg learns a number of important lessons, and manages to come to terms with her own identity, even embracing it.

Eva Nine wouldn't know normalcy if it hit her in the face. How could she? Her home is a futuristic, ingeniously engineered "Sanctuary" built underground. The computerized Sanctuary has provided for all of Eva's needs for as long as she can remember. She has been fed, clothed, well-attended, educated, and entertained in the Sanctuary. Eva has no siblings and no idea who her parents are. In fact, by the age of twelve, she has never met another human being and has never set foot above ground. Eva's only relationship is with Muthr (Multi-Utility Task Helper Robot), the cyborg who raised her in her subterranean residence. Her education has taught her much about life above ground, including the existence of other humans, and Eva yearns to leave the Sanctuary to meet them.

Like Meg, Eva has an aggressive, independent personality. By chance, she discovers some hidden rooms and passages within her Sanctuary. Eva uses one such tucked-away location as her secret hiding place, which she fills with toy stuffed animals and the like. She frequents this hiding place whenever she wants to get away from it all. One day, Eva discovers rock-solid evidence that other humans exist: an item in her secret hiding place that she never placed there. It is part of a photograph, burnt around the edges. In the photo, Eva can discern a smiling girl holding hands with a man and a robot. The letters "W-O-N-D" are legible near the top of the picture, and the letters "L-A" near the bottom. Eva calls this item her "WondLa," and determines to find its source - outside the Sanctuary - someday.

Eva's stable but unsatisfying existence comes to an end one day when a marauding huntsman from above ground destroys her Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is slashed and burned to bits, and Eva barely manages to escape with her life, WondLa in tow. It is hardly the introduction to above-ground existence that Eva had envisioned for herself. Worse, she has no idea whether Muthr survived the attack. Worse still, Eva finds herself totally unprepared for life above ground.

Armed with only her Omnipod (a PDA-type device that captures and projects 3-D holographic images of local surroundings and keeps Eva informed by accessing an encyclopedic knowledge base), her talking jacket (a "jackvest"), a supply of food capsules, and her wits, Eva explores an unknown planet that looks nothing like the Earth of which she learned while living in the Sanctuary. Not only is she completely unfamiliar with the territory that she finds, her environs are totally unrecognizable, even to the Omnipod. In the Sanctuary, Eva learned about Earth's animal and plant life. Above ground, Eva is forced to confront a bewildering array of unfamiliar living things, including trees that walk and odd animals that resemble overgrown turtles and communicate through mental telepathy. She ends up befriending a strange, lizard-like biped with gills who speaks to Eva in a completely indecipherable language but eventually makes himself understandable using a weird device with a set of tiny, inhalable microchips.

Eva is eventually reunited with Muthr, and her bizarre friend, Rovender Kitt, tells her that he has never seen a creature resembling Eva and never heard of a planet called Earth. He claims that they are on a planet called "Orbona." However, Rovender agrees to accompany Eva on a journey to the Royal Museum, where evidence of human existence is on display. Perhaps, he tells them, that there, Eva will be able to find some clue as to where any other humans might be. Meanwhile, the huntsman who destroyed Eva's Sanctuary remains in hot pursuit, and Eva must repeatedly outsmart him, along with numerous additional alien adversaries. Eva's main struggle is to find belonging and acceptance; her search for WondLa is a search for a stable, normal life. Thus, the tale is of Eva's quest to find her own identity. As the story unfolds, Eva must forge an identity for herself.

The most important difference between these stories is in their protagonists' familial circumstances. Meg has a family, a large one by modern Western standards. She has a solid sense of who she is, and her main difficulty is in restoring the balance that has been completely upset by her father's disappearance. Meg's family is the most important thing to her. The love that underlies her parents' marriage, and the love that binds the Murrys and their four children, are assumed to exist. Meg struggles to survive socially in an outside environment that values conformity and the matching of external expectations, but at the end of the day she has a warm family to which she can return. Eva, on the other hand, seeks to establish a set of human relationships that she never had. Though raised in a technically stable environment, Eva yearns to live as a normal human girl. Her closest relationship is with a machine, and when she loses contact with the machine, the best that she can do is to befriend a strange creature. An entire world, the world that she hoped to find by stepping above ground, is missing. Eva's forced nonconformity to her alien environment is her greatest peril; she cannot embrace it, but must fight to survive despite it.

The contrast between these two tales reflects the shift in Western lifestyles that has taken hold over the past fifty years. Meg's family was typical of its era: two happily married adults raising several children in a stable home. Eva's existence is characterized by anomie. It is not her fault that she has no friends; she has been thrust into a strange world against her will. DiTerLizzi's excellent novel was published forty-eight years after L'Engle's, and reflects an American society in which families with close parent-child relationships are fast becoming the exception rather than the norm. It is a society increasingly characterized by rootlessness and uncertainty, in which earlier social and moral norms have broken down. In the 1960s, Bobby and Ethel Kennedy raised a family of ten children, and were admired for it; today, smaller families than theirs are met with gawks and rude comments when seen in public places. Many children will find it easier to relate to Eva than to Meg; even among children with two parents at home, the pervasiveness of vapid visual entertainment has turned those parents into strangers. On the one hand, the continued publication of engaging science fiction and fantasy for children over the course of the past half-century is something to appreciate; there is much depth to be mined in The Search for WondLa. On the other hand, Eva Nine's circumstances may be cause for alarm.

Despite Eva's isolation, there is something redemptive about The Search for WondLa: the very search itself. Eva Nine and Meg Murry ultimately pine for the same thing: a happy and stable life with a loving family. Eva connects emotionally to her cyborg parent and befriends her lizard-like traveling companion, but clings tenaciously to her hope and desire for human connections. Perhaps her longing reflects a societal yearning for the same goals. On some level, our society may be yearning for a return to its former family orientation and stability. And as long as we continue to wish for meaningful connections and stable relationships, there is hope for us too.