After coming to this book with high expectations, I must say I was disappointed. Since it is hailed as something of a children's classic, I expected something more than the rather insipid fare presented. Madeline L'Engle seems to have set out to write a children's fantasy with a lot of Hard SF concepts, but have ended up with a familiar "Good-versus-Evil" story in the Christian tradition, cluttered with a lot of half-cooked scientific concepts which are never more than cursorily explained.
For example, the key concept, the "tesseract", is explained as “the fifth dimension”. The author says, through the character of Mrs. Whatsit:"Well, the fifth dimension’s a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go through the long way around. In other words, to put into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points."
Well, she is wrong on many counts here.
The tesseract is actually a hypothetical figure of the mathematical fourth dimension, whose “faces” consist of three dimensional cubes, the same way the faces of a normal cube consist of squares. In fact, if you square a square, you get a cube: if you square a cube in the fourth dimension, you get a tesseract. (Interestingly enough, this point is well captured by L’Engle: only, she sees the fourth dimension as time. This is Einstein’s concept, and totally independent of the mathematical fourth dimension.)
[To be fair, I have to add that although the author misses base totally with the basic concept, I found the title of the book is a nice way to describe the concept of a wormhole: however, apart from using this methodology to keep on jumping from one planet to another, this interesting topic is not developed further.]
The parents of the protagonist, Meg, are scientists. Meg is a typical “difficult” child-bad at academics and rebellious at school, but brilliant. Her parents, being scientists, can see beyond outer appearances, so they are tolerant of her faults: her teachers and society less so. When the story begins, Meg’s father is missing, ostensibly on a secret mission for the government. But all the neighbours think that he has gone off with another woman, and the snide remarks she keeps on hearing do nothing to improve Meg’s already belligerent personality. The only person who understands her is kid brother Charles Wallace, a boy who is officially a moron but endowed with psychic powers in reality.
It is into this situation, on a stormy night, that Mrs. Whatsit walks in. She, with her companions Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which (nice play on words here: Mrs. Who wears glasses and quotes from classics reminds one of a wise owl, and Mrs. Which flies on a broom and keeps on appearing and disappearing, as if by magic) are fighting against the “Darkness”, which Meg’s dad is also fighting. They whisk away Meg, Charles and neighbourhood kid Calvin across many universes and dimensions. It seems that the kids have been destined to fight the Darkness: which they do on the frightening planet Camazotz, and in true fairy tale tradition, initially lose and then win.
And that’s the story in a nutshell.
As fantasies go, this is pretty standard fare, considering the time in which it was written. However, the novelist must be commended for bringing the whole good-versus-evil battle into a wider canvas than the traditional Christian one: Einstein, Gandhi, Buddha, Da Vinci etc. are also seen as warriors of the Light along with Jesus, and the Darkness is never identified with the concept of Sin or the Devil. In fact, the description of Camazotz with its mindless inhabitants and their rigid adherence to discipline is positively chilling in its resemblance to a totalitarian regime (the nonconformist child being forced to toss the ball again and again, crying with pain at each practice… brrr!).
But ultimately, the novel fails to deliver. Meg’s father’s experimental project ends up as just a plot device. The author seemed to have started out with a lot of ideas at the outset, but seems have lost track of them as the novel progressed: in the end, only the rescue of Meg’s father and his reunion with the family is given any focus. The whole background story remains extremely inchoate. And as a fearless female protagonist, Meg does precious little except at the very end.
Still, I give the novel three stars for introducing a lot of interesting concepts to its young audience. In its time, it must have "ignited a lot of minds" (to borrow a phrase from our former President, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam) and encouraged them to travel along the adventurous trail of scientific discovery.