15 March 2010


Madeleine L'Engle Novel Smackdown, Final Winner
(Revisit Round 1, Round 2, Round 3A, Round 3B, and Round 4.)

A Swiftly Tilting Planet: 5 votes
An Acceptable Time: 0 votes

I hope you readers are happy now!

But remind me never
to let these things be decided
by popular vote again! ;)

If I had discovered tournament brackets any time before the last eight years or so, I would have written this final post first--because the winner would have been so obvious to me. Indeed, when I started this smackdown, I suspected that A Swiftly Tilting Planet would come out on top, anyway.

And what happened is that I ended up wanting An Acceptable Time to win.

Simply put, it was this final book of the Time Quintet--the book that was almost an afterthought, as L'Engle herself wrote of the "Time Quartet" in the 1997 introduction to the five-book set--I repeat, it was this final book which held up more in my rereading.

For one thing, it doesn't fail the Terminator Time Travel test, to which I subject all stories of time travel. (Of course, years after the first film, the third and fourth movies in the franchise as well as The Sarah Connor Chronicles would end up failing the Terminator Time Travel test, too.) Now, a Time Travel story doesn't have to pass this test to be good. Back to the Future, to take one great 80s movie, failed abysmally . . . but Back to the Future II virtually redeemed the trilogy for both of them.

The Terminator Time Travel test is based on the paradox from the first movie . . .

Q: "Who was John Connor's first father,
before Kyle Reese traveled back through time?"

A: There is "first" and "last" only in linear time.
Kyle was, is, and ever shall be John's father--
because Kyle was, is, and ever shall be in 1984.

Please pardon the religious language!
One gets to a point in which the mysteries of physics
can be explained only by the language of religion.

No matter how many times you rewind it, you will never have a 1984 without Kyle. Before he was born, he was "borrowed." The future was not changed by his free moral agency; it was saved. The only philosophical flaw in the whole movie is the line "The future is not set"--which really should be, "The present is not set."

Similarly, no matter how many times you rewind it, you will also never have a 3,000 BC without Polly, Bishop Colubra and Zachary. On the other hand, there was a time, L'Engle gamely admits, when Charles Wallace wasn't within any of his hosts.

Now, I see why it was necessary for Mad Dog Branzillo to be replaced with El Zarco, at the end of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I just don't know when I started seeing it as (no better than) retroactive assassination. (Yes, that's a paraphrase of Cameron's line "retroactive abortion.") In the Austin Family novel Troubling a Star, Vicky visits Vespugia and lets the reader know that El Zarco was assassinated. The difference between the Sith the Echthroi's forces and the Jedi Charles Wallace's faction is that the latter aren't crude enough to use bullets.

Then there is the issue of memory. Meg and Charles Wallace retained their old memories because they were in the kythe, when the rest of planet earth was not. An Acceptable Time was more generous than this, putting everyone in the same tesseract and tying their ability to travel in it to their belief in its existence.

You might have noticed those mentions of "tesseracts" or "time gates" in unrelated posts since the last round. If so, then you've seen which of the two novels left the most lasting impression on me. On the other hand, I haven't used--or thought in terms of--"might-have-beens" at all! An Acceptable Time, for all its flaws, got time travel right, almost precisely where A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which is otherwise a masterpiece, got it wrong.

Yet I thank my readers who cast their votes overwhelmingly for A Swiftly Tilting Planet! My personal quirks notwithstanding, this bracket would have lost all credibility, I think, if any other novel had won.

Image Sources: a) A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle, b) The Terminator screencap


r said...

(Your vote does count for at least five regular votes, you know.) I hadn't considered this before, because I guess I'm used to books that get time travel "wrong" in the sense you describe. That's basically how everyone does it.

And yet, the time travel in Planet is just the frame story. It's (uncannily) like the quantum leaping in Quantum Leap, except there's a real story instead of a vague myth arc that gets cancelled by NBC.

r said...

Man, that was a terrible comment. I hope it's at least in English. :)

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, I didn't want to ask for votes and then veto them all at the end . . . though I suppose this post is ultimately so ungracious that I might as well have done that? =P

I think there's a Twilight Zone episode in which someone goes back in time to kill Adolph Hitler when he is a baby. (A huge TZ fan has told me, though, that while it sounds like a TZ episode, it isn't one he has ever seen.)

When this well-intentioned assassin comes back to the present, she learns that the baby she murdered was an innocent child, and that the Hitler family's nanny, terrified that she would be blamed for his death, replaced him with another baby she managed to find. That baby grew up to be the Hitler.

For me, though, it's not so much the cause-and-effect physics of time travel that matters, but the idea that every life is more than just another cause or just another effect. (Very Terminator!) Making sure that Mad Dog Branzillo would be replaced by El Zarco from conception certainly takes care of the problem and perfectly resolved the story, but it seems to annihiliate a unique soul.

Cozy Book Nook said...

That is interesting hitler story. Does sound like TZ.

Time travel cause/effect ideas make my brain hurt especially the Terminator movies-- gosh they could keep making those movies forever-- maybe the cyborgs will finally just go back to the wild west and off John Connor's great great great grandpa and leave the rest of us in peace.

Enbrethiliel said...


Maybe there were already cyborgs which were sent to his ancestors and which all failed miserably! ;-)

You'd think Skynet would realise by now (Now being the 2030s) how utterly outclassed it is by the Connors . . .

Enbrethiliel said...


I just remembered another reason An Acceptable Time is so great! It makes up for the "Death is a transition to another planet/star" strangeness that is in Meet the Austins and Camilla.

Time gets it right again: death is the closing of a time gate.