Friday, September 19, 2014

Many Waters (a book review post)

Here we are at book four in the continuing downward spiral that is Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quintet. You can see the reviews for the previous books at the following links:
A Wrinkle in Time
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Those of you who have been following along for a while will know that I kind of use Snow Crash as my barometer for what is a bad book. For as celebrated as it is, Snow Crash turned out to be incredibly ludicrous. I mean, to the point of "how could anyone over the age of 14 think this book is more than stupid?" But, still, I was glad to have read just to see how bad it is and to enjoy writing the scathing review that I did. Well... Many Waters plumbs depths of stupidity far greater than Snow Crash could ever aspire to and I'm not glad to have read it on any level other than that I plan to finish this series.

Yes, there will be spoilers, but, seriously, it doesn't matter, because you don't want to read this book.

All right. So this book deals with Sandy and Dennys, who have been little better than side characters in the other books. They are Meg and Charles Wallace's "normal" brothers. Twins. It also takes place prior to A Swiftly Tilting Planet, while the twins are sports stars in high school. The impression I got is that they are probably juniors and about 17 years old. Basically, the boys walk into their mother's lab and, when they walk out of it, rather than going back into the kitchen of the house, they end up in the days of Noah. Yes, that Noah. The one that built the big boat. Hence the title of the book.

There's never any firm conclusion as to how they got transported back in time. It may or may not have had to do with an experiment that was going on in the lab, though the type of experiment is never explained, or it may have had to do with them messing with their dad's weird computer, or, maybe, it was just God.

They end up in the desert. Of course, they're wearing winter clothing, which they soon discard... all the way down to their skin. Because that's always a smart thing to do in the desert. Get nearly naked, that is. The end result of that is that about 1/3 of the book deals with them being nursed back to health by Noah's family, who mistake the twins for giants, because no one in Noah's day was even near to being 5' tall. A lot of this section of the book also has the repeated conversation with, well, every freaking character they meet, "We're not giants." And it's not that I don't think they wouldn't have had to have had that conversation, but does L'Engle really need to repeat it 10 or so times.

This book also follows the pattern of all of the books in the series: The characters really don't ever do anything. Sandy and Dennys talk a lot about how they will get home... um, no, wait... They ask that question a lot. Every few pages it seems. "How will we get home?" "I don't know." "What should we do?" "Let's go garden." Seriously, that's their solution every time the question comes up, to work in Noah's father's garden. Basically, they end up being observers to the action going on around them and that's pretty much it. And what that comes down to is that the rising action in this book is about like a road in West Texas with a speed bump on it when Sandy gets kidnapped.

Aside from the lack of any real story or character development, the book is full of all kind of ridiculousness:

1. There are mammoths. Yes, in the desert. But these are not the mammoths you're thinking of. You know, the big, hairy elephants. No, these are tiny mammoths. Terrier-sized mammoths. In fact, they pretty much are small dogs that look like mammoths. The mammoths can scent things and follow trails like a bloodhound, but they are also used as dowsing rods to find water. Which explains why the desert people keep them as pets, I suppose, but how did they get tiny? Well, evidently, they... evolved to be that way? The explanation is something along the lines of them having grown smaller and smaller over a great time.

2. However, the Earth in this book is a brand new Earth. A very young planet still going through its growing pains, so the whole thing with the mammoths doesn't really make any sense. L'Engle seems to want to have the Earth both be billions of years old and only 5000 (or so) years old as in the strict Creationist viewpoint.

3. There are manticores and griffons. Or a manticore and a griffon. It's never clear on whether there are more than one of each. The manticore is "bad" and just shows up rather like a cartoon character to shout "hungry" and try to eat the little doggy-mammoths and have to be shooed away. The griffon shows up to chase "bad" girls away from Sandy and Dennys.

4. L'Engle seems to have a thing with unicorns, because there are more unicorns in this book. Virtual unicorns, as the twins call them. They don't always exist, only when you decide you believe in them and, of course, they can only be approached by virgins. The annoying thing with the unicorns is that even after the boys have experiences with the unicorns, they go on and on about how they can't believe in them because they don't exist, so they can only believe in the unicorns when the unicorns are actually standing right in front of them. I have to suppose that they ceased to believe in their family, too, when their family quit being right in front of them.

-- The issue with all of this is that L'Engle, from what I can tell, wants us to accept this book as being set in reality, our reality, and, yet, she undermines reality by introducing all of this mythological stuff into what we're supposed to believe is the actual pre-flood setting. It's more suspension of disbelief than I could handle, and I haven't even gotten to the Angels.

5. Oh, yes, the Angels. The pseudo conflict in the book is between the seraphim (the good Angels) and the nephilim (the bad Angels). In fact the whole "conflict" revolves around a girl, Yalith, who everyone is in love with, so it becomes a matter of whom she will choose: one of the twins (or both) or Eblis, the nephilim. It's an empty conflict through which L'Engle seems to deliver her message of "bad things don't happen to good people" (a message which makes me wonder what reality L'Engle lived in, because it's the same kind of message all of her books have: Love will always win and, ultimately, nothing bad happens to people who believe in love).

Speaking of Yalith and male/female relationships in general in this book: This may have been the most difficult part of the book for me to deal with. Yalith is the youngest child of Noah; she's nearly 100 years old (because people in Noah's time lived much longer (Noah is 700ish)), but she's basically a teenager. Because, you know, living longer means slower growth? Which makes me wonder how long would remain a baby in this time. 20 years? Because, man, if I was a mom, I'd be pissed. Having to care for an infant for 20 years... I can't even imagine it, especially since pregnancy still only last nine months (because there was a birth during the book). You could end up with, well, a lot of babies. Actually, what I think she wants us to believe is that everyone ages normally until they hit puberty when they, for whatever reason, quit developing. Still, that means around 90 years as a teenager! That would be the worst!

Oh, back to the twins and male/female relationships:
So Sandy meets Yalith; Yalith is basically naked, because the people in Noah's time only wear loincloths. In the desert. Because we have examples of people today who live in the desert but only wear loincloths? At any rate, Yalith is all but naked, and Sandy is a teenage boy confronted with a naked girl and his response is to get a "funny feeling." Um, what? A funny feeling? What does that even mean? And that's how all of the interactions between the twins and girls go: They get funny feelings. I'm sorry; these boys are supposed to be 16 or 17 years old, and L'Engle is treating them as if they're, at best, 10. It's ridiculous.

The twins do end up back at home after spending at least a year in the desert with Noah. One of the Angels removes the boys' tans and, I suppose, the year or more they had aged, although that's not actually mentioned. So they end up back at home right at the point they'd left and nothing has changed. There was no character growth for the twins and nothing of consequence affected in the past. The flood still happens and all of that. It's a book where the goal is to return to the status quo but without even the benefit of the characters learning anything from the journey. In fact, the boys pick up talking about getting their driver's licenses as if nothing had even happened.


Yes, I am still planning to read the final, such as it is, book in the series. [It's not really the final book, because there are at least three more related books, but there are only five books considered to be part of the Time series, and I'm sticking to that.] I've already tortured myself through four books, so I may as well, right? Yeah, okay, I could just stop, but I won't.

Seriously, though, there's not a single thing in this book that I can think of to make it worth reading. Even with Snow Crash, I can understand some of the appeal. After all, it did have some new (at the time) concepts, so I can see why people could have been wowed by it. But not Many Waters. Not unless you just want to read about two teenage boys weeding a garden in the desert and waiting around for something to take them home.


  1. The "Funny Feeling" stuff I can live with, I suppose; she may want to keep it family friendly, although there's probably better ways of describing that even in a PG way.

    The aging thing is hard to reconcile; L'Engle seems to at least want her books to have some sort of rational scientific underpinning, even if the science is made up. I've never understood how living to 900 would work. If you go off what really happens, people used to live what, 50 years, and now they live to 100, but we still hit puberty about the same time (or a little earlier), and now people in their 20s aren't really expected to be independent, while people are delaying having kids until they are 35, 40 or so. Then people are healthier until well into their 60s or 70s, and we've raised the retirement age a bit.

    But we still walk and talk at the same time, because the aging changes appear to be more towards the latter end of the spectrum and mostly deal with better health and different societal attitudes. It's not as though 25 years olds are less capable of living on their own. (When my dad was 25, he had two kids already. When I was 25, I was just starting law school. At 25, my own kids seem barely to have started living.)

    So I guess if we lived to 900 we'd still walk and talk at 2, but society would change so that teenagers would live at home for 100 years? Or wouldn't that grow old (PUN INTENDED)? I mean, if you look at Oldest Daughter, she's 27 and wouldn't WANT to be at home if it meant rules and things.

    I think people don't really think that stuff through, and L'Engle seems not to have.

    The thing about belief: I HATE that. I hate whenever something incredible happens to a person and they think they are dreaming or don't believe what's right in front of their eyes. A character is in a house and a demon pops out of thin air and attacks them and starts throwing furniture around, and most writers have the character say "I must be dreaming!" or something stupid. I think your reaction would be more "How is this happening, I'll worry about that later I'd better defend myself."

    In "American Horror Story," the TV show, the characters generally do NOT say "this can't be!" and I love it all the more for that. I try to steer clear of "This can't be!" type of reactions, even where the things are pretty fantastic, because it gets old and is itself unbelievable.

    Here, two guys who have found themselves back in bibilical times living in a desert far from home, surrounded by minimammoths (really?) and Griffons and angels, say "UNICORNS? NO WAY SO UNBELIEVABLE." That's just dumb. Either the writer or the character is being willfully stupid.

  2. PS also stories with a theme tend to overreach. I try not to worry about what the theme or moral of a story is because then you try too hard to bend the story to the theme. When I wrote 'the After' I periodically reminded myself that it was above all an adventure story, not a moralistic tale or anything like that. I think it makes the story a bit scattershot as what "message" it sends, but that's fine because it wasn't intended to send a message. It was intended to tell a story.

  3. I am so freaking glad to know that someone else thought Snow Crash was ludicrous! I couldn't even handle it.

  4. Briane: Here's my issue with the "funny feeling" thing: If she wanted to keep it PG, she should have kept clothes on the characters. She created a ridiculous situation by having naked girls and having the boys take particular notice of their breasts and, yet, only get a "funny feeling."

    It wasn't just that Yalith was living at home till she was 100; she was only just reaching childbearing ability, so that would put her in the 14-16 year old range? Or 13-15? She skirted that whole issue by there being no actual children in the book.

    Elisabeth: Did you go back and read my review of it?

  5. I suppose kids can't very well write reviews of kids books, but I'm not sure adults can either. Are these books selling? Things that seem so stupid to you might not to a kid. No kid would require a year of development at the end. Even a 10 yr old would know a lot more than "a funny feeling" look at what they get up to in schools these days.

  6. This feels like one of those movies that's so bad that you have to watch it. I mean, wow. So many critical research failures. Plus those morals stuffed in there just makes it sound painful. I think I'll heed your advice and avoid this book at all costs.

  7. Jo: Well, I think adults can, because there is an objective quality about writing that goes along with the subjective quality, and, objectively, these books are just not well written. Put them up against something like Harry Potter and it becomes very clear.

    However, that's not to say that it's not okay to like things that are "bad" or "stupid." I make it very clear to my creative writing kids that they should not take it as a bad thing if they like things that I don't, and I point out all the things that I liked when I was their age that I find... less than sufficient, these days.

    Jeanne: It's pretty bad.
    Okay, no. It's very bad.

  8. I'm convinced. I need to open a petition to get these books removed from the canon of Children's Literature.

    Not banned, just panned. 'Cause everybody knows once you ban a book it becomes a best seller, and that REALLY is the last thing we should encourage here.

    Much love,

  9. Veronica: You know how some of those re-makes of old movies have actually been for the good? I think that's what these books need: someone to re-write them and fill in all the holes L'Engle left everywhere.

  10. Oh, dear... I haven't read the book so I can't offer any perspective there but I certainly don't feel encouraged to read it. It sounds less like time travel and more like they inhaled some interesting fumes in the lab and had a shared hallucination. Twins, man, they're always getting up to weird stuff.

  11. TAS: Considering our differing views on the other ones, I'd actually be very interested in what you would think of this one.