Science in Fiction: Madeleine L’Engle and Cell Biology

Reading

Today’s science-in-fiction is on the edge between sci-fi and fantasy, but it undeniably uses scientific knowledge in interesting ways. You may decide I’m stretching the limits of my criteria on this one, but I hope I’ll convince you that it belongs on the list, and not just because it was formative for me personally. (That doesn’t hurt, though…it is my blog, after all!)

Those of you who know what I’m talking about are probably grinning already at the thought of including this in a science blog, and those who have only read one science-fantasy book by the late Madeleine L’Engle are wondering how you missed the cell biology in A Wrinkle in Time. Don’t worry—A Wrinkle in Time has a lot of science-related ideas, including highlights like Dr. Murry cooking dinner for her kids on a Bunsen burner and Meg using her memory of the periodic table as a weapon against mind control (which definitely inspired me to memorize way more of the table than we had to for chemistry class), but no cell bio. For that, you have to go to the sequel, A Wind in the Door.

This is a strange book, and I love it. I’m going to talk very little about the plot, but it involves a conflict that spans the whole universe, but for various reasons must be resolved at the cellular level in a single human body. This results in an expedition that sounds very Magic School Bus, but involves a lot less scientific detail and a lot more soul-searching, dancing, and cherubim. (Just one, though.)

That description may make you wonder why I count this story as using science in inspiring ways, but stay with me. Within the cell our heroes enter are mitochondria, which provide a source of energy for the cell. Inside those mitochondria are tiny, intelligent organisms, called farandolae in the younger stage, that must mature into treelike adult forms for the mitochondria to function properly.

Farandolae.png

Artist’s rendition of a farandola. Cute, right?

In case your cell biology is a bit rusty, farandolae are made up, but mitochondria are very real. The great thing about this is that I was too young to know the difference when I read the book for the first time. It seemed obvious that farandolae were an invention, so I just kind of thought mitochondria were too.

That means that when I learned about mitochondria for the first time, I had a moment that was every bit as magical as reading a great piece of fantasy, or maybe even more so, since we take joy in fantasy because it isn’t real. This was the reverse—I was learning that something I’d thought was only fantasy was actually real. This feeling happens entirely too seldom, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

So, am I just writing about A Wind in the Door because it was formative for me, or does it actually fit my ideal of science that forms a necessary part of the setting and story? Couldn’t this have been set anywhere? After all, one of the story’s major motifs is that where doesn’t matter. (L’Engle is consistent on this point, or we’d have a Mrs. Where in A Wrinkle in Time.)

Actually, I think that this setting is highly important for L’Engle’s story. In dealing with a threat to the whole universe, visible at cosmic scales, it’s incredibly telling that key parts of the action take place at microscopic scales. To save the galaxies, it’s necessary to also save the smallest and humblest of creatures. (To throw in two cents from a book revered by C. S. Lewis, another Christian but generally-beloved fantasy author, the highest cannot stand without the lowest.)

Not only is the scale important, but L’Engle’s choice also highlights the significance of life in general (yes, a particular life as well, but no spoilers) by choosing a cell as the setting instead of something even smaller but less inherently organic, like a proton. Granted, I think in a proton the quarks would’ve been living and intelligent too, because that’s the kind of thing she would’ve done, but the interaction of life at all scales is a huge (so to speak) theme for her. As I said, the whole thing is weird, but it’s beautifully weird, and in exactly the right way to get her message across.

If you’re interested in reading A Wind in the Door, you should be! I recommend A Wrinkle in Time first so you know the main characters, but the books stand alone plot-wise. Enjoy the fusion of science and mysticism! (For a really interesting read about Madeleine L’Engle herself, check out this New Yorker article from 2004.)

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One thought on “Science in Fiction: Madeleine L’Engle and Cell Biology

  1. Marvelous article, and not spoiled at all! By the way, did you know that ads have started to pop up on your blog site?

    Love, Mommy

    On Fri, May 19, 2017 at 11:18 AM, Something of the Marvelous wrote:

    > SomethingMarvelous posted: ” Today’s science-in-fiction is on the edge > between sci-fi and fantasy, but it undeniably uses scientific knowledge in > interesting ways. You may decide I’m stretching the limits of my criteria > on this one, but I hope I’ll convince you that it belongs on t” >

    Like

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