My aunt gave me a hardcover copy of A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle way back around 1979, give or take a year. The one with the amazing cover by Leo and Diane Dillon. It’s been sitting in my massive spellbook collection for all this time. In the last ten years, it’s slowly made it’s way into my prime collection of must-haves, and I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. I picked it up and placed it in my read-pile, which meant at last its time had come! Then, a few days later, Madeleine L’Engle passes on and I say to myself, “Dang if that isn’t some kind of synchronicity.” So now I have to create a sacred space around me with no distractions and really read the mother-scratcher!

Spoilers follow, so if you aren’t ready to know the big secrets, best to scroll down before I tell you what goes down in the book. I’ve never read any other book by ML, so I’m going on what I read in the book without reference to any of her other works.

The plot is as follows: A mad South American dictator is threatening to launch atomic missiles at the united states, and all prospects for peace look bleak. It’s looking like atomic armageddon is about to take place and no one can do anything. Who will save us? Enter a family of good old American scientists having a nice white thanksgiving (the pivotal Native Americans in the book have been wiped out or assimilated in the soon-to-be-revealed past). The only characters you really have to remember are Charles and his older sister Meg. Meg is pregnant with her husband’s child, who is away on some conference having to do with science. Meg’s father is some super duper scientist who advises The President on science matters. In fact the supreme executive calls the guy up just to let him know The End is about to come unless Superma … sorry, unless something can be done. He doesn’t ask for advice on science, he just, you know, calls to chat during a national crisis because Meg’s father is that awesome.

The crummy old Mother-In-Law, who turns out to be the good-hat-masquerading-as-the-bad-hat makes some ridiculous magical jibber-jabber out of the blue and Charles decides he’s going to head on out into the freezing rain/snow to go to some rock to “listen” to the earth or whatever. Everyone is cool with this, because, you know, they are rational scientists who understand that things like cold and wetness can be overcome by repetitive arguments based on a hunch. Meg and Charles can communicate with each other by means of a special form of extra-sensory-perception known as “kything”, and so we get two stories at once – what Meg sees and does, and what Charles sees and does. Talk about multiple personality viewpoints!

Charles meets a unicorn with wings called Gaudior, who takes him on a journey through time and space to learn what pivotal moment led to the current threat of atomic annihilation, and hopefully change it. The bulk of the story is Charles going from place to place through time to learn the major players of the drama that has created this potential catastrophe. The “bad guys” are a bunch of spirits called the Echthroi who try to jack Charles and Gaudior’s efforts, either by separating them, or trapping them in alternate realities called “Projections”. See, the United Federation of Planets, err, Unicorns are concerned because if the Earth’s surface is covered in atomic radiation then the entire universe will be destroyed because the human race, especially the white part of humanity, are so important that all of creation will fall if Poindexter Q. Antwerp doesn’t buy his SUV the next day.

Okay, you can tell I wasn’t very impressed by the book, and am pretty much putting it down. I expected better and found the book a real letdown. Either that, or my friend Liephus has taught me too much critical thinking for my own good. There were some good things in the book, and those aspects I did enjoy very much. The part where Charles visits the planet of the unicorns is probably the highlight for me. Unicorns consuming moonlight and starlight, and Charles rolling in the snow and eating icky icicles to heal were just downright awesome. That’s what I’m down with. I thought that the “kything” idea was neat. The way that was portrayed really made me buy it, that Meg and Charles had this rapport transcending time and space. Totally cool. And the conversations between Gaudior and Charles about how time and space work were all fascinating to me. I love that kind of wordplay, it messes with your mind in a good way.

But, I got to say there were a lot more things that really annoyed me and shot the story down to the point where I was extremely bored. The main source of conflict, the unambiguous mad dictator from South America threatening the spotless and pure United States just galls me. It’s presented as a one-sided, stereotypical conflict just to ramp up fear, rather than the complicated mess it would be in real life. It’s just a McGuffin to provide an impetus for the hero/heroine to act. I think it was a mistake. Any one of the horrible things that happened in the past would have been preferable, simply because human everyday conflict is much more immediate and recognizable than an impersonal and contrived “world conflict”. That scene where “Chuck” gets his head bashed in had ten times more pathos than “nuclear doom part #286”.

Another thing that gets my goat is the “travel back in time to prevent Hitler” trope that’s been done to death. Traveling back in time to change the past so the future turns out the way you want is morally wrong, no matter how you slice it. Yes, Charles is saving the “planet”, but who gave him the right to make that decision? Starfleet? The Masters of the Universe? It’s easy to think about the millions of people who won’t die because history was changed, but what about the millions of people whose life Charles just erased because they never got to exist? Do those people not get a say now? It’s inhuman monstrosity of the worst order. Charles changes history so that the South American country is offering peace instead of war. Nothing is said of the consequences of that act. We never find out if the United States is now the one threatening war or what happened to all those people whose lives have now been rendered meaningless by tampering with time. Disgusting.

Then there’s the beef I have with the unicorns. Gaudior is a poor example of intergalactic mercy. He’s dense, impatient, and not particularly cooperative. I didn’t feel too good knowing that the Universe Nations sent a unicorn that wasn’t a paragon of intelligence and acuity for so vital a mission. I expected more from an “official” out of galactic central. I don’t know what to make of the multiple mentions of Gaudior’s “dangerous teeth”. I took that as hints that Gaudior was evil. This is the best the good guys could cough up? Give me Klaatu from The Day The Earth Stood Still, any day, please.

The Echthroi are “bad”, but I don’t see how. All they “do” is try to stop Charles and Gaudior from changing history, which to me is a “good” thing. We only have Gaudior’s word that these spirits are evil. For all we know the unicorns are the bad guys using Charles as their proxy to change history into a destructive endgame. It’s a problem that gets on my nerves, and it ruined the book for me. At the end, I felt that same gut-wrenching dread I felt at the end of the movie Back To The Future. Marty has preserved the present, but instead of maintaining the balance he has ended up with a timeline that serves only his crass desires. He has more “work” to do.

There are many fables and folklores about traveling through time. The message is always the same: Do it at your own risk. You may end up in a Qix Death Spiral, with the “spark” following you to a dead end of oblivion, while life continues on in a mainline time stream towards greater consciousness. Total respect to ML and her work, but I take this book as further proof we, as an experiment of nature, are not ready to travel through time wisely.