Jan 5 2012 4:00pm

Espionage and Morality: The Arm of the Starfish

After playing with coming of age stories, science fiction, and warm family tales for young adults, for her next book, The Arm of the Starfish, author Madeleine L’Engle decided to try a new type of story, a thriller combining espionage and some science fiction elements, featuring characters from her by then wildly successful A Wrinkle in Time. In yet another switch, her protagonist, instead of a misunderstood girl, is a misunderstanding boy.

As a standalone book, it almost works. Unfortunately, although it can be read alone, The Arm of the Starfish is not quite a standalone book, as it features two of the characters from A Wrinkle in Time and its direct sequel, A Wind in the Door. Starfish, however, appeared in 1965 — three years after Wrinkle and eight years before Door. Although this decision to write books out of order gave L’Engle several creative opportunities, it would also restrict her in later books, and, as we’ve been chatting in comments, create havoc with the between-books timelines.

The basic plot first: Adam Eddington, a budding marine biologist has just gotten the summer job of his dreams: the chance to study and work with starfish on a small island off the coast of Portugal with one of the greatest scientists in the field, Dr. Calvin O’Keefe. While waiting to board his plane, he meets a beautiful young woman named Kali (the name would be a giveaway to anyone but Adam) and finds himself plunged into an international conspiracy of sorts, complete with priests without eyebrows, the U.S. Embassy, kidnapping, and starfish.

The starfish part contains the book’s sole venture into science fiction, and it’s also where L’Engle, for the first time, starts heading into questionable scientific territory. Not with the basic facts: starfish, as she correctly notes, are within a phylum, Echinodermata, relatively closely related to the phylum containing humans, Chordata. Going much more beyond that to imply that starfish and humans have a close genetic relationship is probably too much, but not too much for a science fiction text. Also, some (not all) starfish can regenerate arms, an ability probably evolved as an adaptation against predators: losing an arm to a fish is not as big of a problem if you can grow it back.

But it’s what the humans are doing with this ability that causes the problems. Dr. O’Keefe has somehow managed to transfer this regeneration ability from starfish to humans, using it to repair major injuries. So far, standard science fiction, but L’Engle goes a bit further. First, although Dr. O’Keefe is presented as an ethical scientist, he is conducting medical experiments with the regeneration technology on humans, without the assistance or knowledge of any other medical professionals. Most of his patients are the cheerful, more primitive, and — this is important — dirt poor peasants of the half-African/half-Portuguese island he and his family live on, and these experiments are done secretly and completely outside of a hospital setting. In any other book, Dr. O’Keefe would be presented as the villain, or at the very least as a decidedly grey figure playing with forces outside of his control.

I say this, because along with conducting medical experiments on impoverished villagers, Dr. O’Keefe is also assuring us that if this technology gets into the “wrong hands” (said hands mostly belonging to Soviets or Chinese) it could be extremely dangerous, on a level with the atom bomb. Just why is left fairly ambiguous, but a glimpse or two of deformed critters in the lab suggest that those evil Commies are planning to create armies of hideously deformed humans. Some vague statements about well intentioned drugs causing fetal abnormalities and miscarriages (something that really did happen) are also mentioned. Which therefore means that the technology must be kept ultra secret and kept from the Commies at all cost.

Long term readers of my posts will recognize the return of a sore point with me: the idea that knowledge of whatever has to be concealed because humanity, or certain parts of humanity, can’t handle it. And worse is what’s being concealed here. Dr. O’Keefe and Adam speak vaguely of the potential for misuse — but this is a treatment to regrow arms and legs, developed as the Vietnam War was ongoing and within living memory of World War II. And, if this is so dangerous, why on earth is the supposedly ethical Dr. O’Keefe working with this at all, much less experimenting on villagers?

(I’m also going to tiptoe past the book’s troubling suggestion that the deformed animals are the ones deliberately mutilated by humans, while the normal, healed animals are those accidentally injured, coupled as these observations are with the suggestion that the fat spider look of the chief villain was caused by his choices in life, and Canon Tallis lost his eyebrows after watching the torture of others.)

In any case, a conveniently evil millionaire, Typhon Cutter, is after the technology, which oddly enough he plans to sell to the Chinese instead of to, say, Pfizer, despite supposed financial motivations. Adam — possibly because he senses one or two of Dr. O’Keefe’s ethical issues here — has a hard time determining what is going on, and who he should support; these passages, dealing with ethics and choices, are among the better in the book, which also provides plenty of intrigue and even a few action scenes, rare in most of L’Engle’s work. And I did find that one or two sentences in the book filled me with a warm or longing nostalgia. (Including, sadly, Adam’s truthful comment that airline food at the time was actually edible, hard though that is to believe now.)

But as I noted, this is also the first book of a new four book series, and a sort of sequel to her previous novel. Granted that L’Engle did not have a new series in mind when she wrote it (or even an old series; she would not write the direct sequel to A Wrinkle in Time for several more years) and granted that the two characters from A Wrinkle in Time play only supporting roles, I am still unable to read this book outside that series, which brings me to the next problem.


Meg Murry O’Keefe is a decidedly minor character in this book. Always called Mrs. O’Keefe, she is calm, reassuring, intent, focused on mothering her children, a near clone of Mrs. Austin in the Austin books, serene and capable.

And all wrong for Meg Murry.

Let’s start with the first problem: although Calvin and both of her parents have earned their doctorates (and we will later find that her twin brothers Sandy and Dennys earn advanced degrees), Meg has not, although she “sometimes assists” her husband with his mathematics. Now, let me be clear: I have no problems with a woman choosing family and mothering over a career in academia or elsewhere, and I can readily understand that someone like Meg, with her difficulties in high school, might not be eager to continue on for an advanced degree.

I can also understand that some people might want to embrace the ordinary after living the extraordinary, and that Meg, above all, wanted to fit in to her small town. And I am well aware of the institutional difficulties (discussed in the comments in the A Wrinkle in Time post) that faced women, and particularly married women, attempting to enter careers in the sciences in the 1960s. Even married women with advanced degrees were strongly encouraged to stay at home and focus on childrearing, or blocked from earning tenure or advanced positions because of their gender, and Meg Murry O’Keefe reflects these realities.

But it still feels all wrong. This is, after all, Meg, a certifiable math genius, whose problems in school stemmed from knowing far, far too much about math. (And although yes, marine biologists use math regularly, it’s rarely the sort of advanced math we’re told Meg revels in.) And this is Meg, who has travelled to various worlds and was willing to go back to Camazotz to rescue a brother. And far from fitting in to her small town, she and her husband have taken their children to various parts of the world, placing Meg in something between the ordinary life she may have craved and the extraordinary life she seemed to be heading for.

As I’ve noted, L’Engle had no difficulty creating, even in the 1940s and 1950s, portraits of talented, career oriented women. In Dr. Murry she even showed that woman combining a career with motherhood — single motherhood at that. But in this book, she seems to have retreated back to her depictions of the Austin books: a woman can have a career or motherhood, not both — this as she in her own life was combining both.

But the career issue is only a minor one. The real issue is, what happened to Meg? And by this I mean the angry, frustrated, impatient girl of both Wrinkle and Wind in the Door, softened only slightly in A Swiftly Tilting Planet? How has she shifted into this image of serenity and patience and acceptance? I grant that people can change as they grow from teenager to adult, but I see nothing of Meg in this woman. Indeed, in this book, the generally confident, competent Calvin is the one expressing doubts and showing occasional impatience. It’s particularly odd given that eight years after this book, L’Engle was able to recreate that angry Meg in A Wind in the Door.

If not for the names of her children — Charles, Sandy, Dennis, all named for her brothers — and the fact that a later book confirms that yes, she really is the Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time, and that her son Charles has apparently inherited some of the family’s abilities with ESP, I would almost assume that Calvin O’Keefe had married another woman in college.

Which brings me to the issue of Poly. (Who will later become Polly, but is Poly in this book.)

I’ll just go ahead and note that of L’Engle’s three major teenage heroines – Vicky, Meg, and Poly – Poly is hands down my least favorite. It’s not difficult to see why. Vicky, as annoying as she can be and often is, still has very real, understandable issues and doubts, about her intelligence and looks and place in the world. Meg, with her anger and impatience and fish out of water feelings, is also someone I can identify with. They are characters whose flaws and self-esteem issues make sense, who readers can identify with. Their worldviews correctly reflect their relatively sheltered backgrounds.

Not so much with Poly, who comes from a loving, supportive family, has travelled widely, speaks at least seven languages fluently, at the age of twelve is already competent enough to have spent years working in a major marine biology research lab and gain enough technical knowledge from this to be a worthy kidnap victim. This sort of character can be handled in a couple of ways. You can make her simply amazingly self-confident, competent and awesome (i.e. Sophy in Georgette Heyer’s eponymous novel, The Grand Sophy). You can show her as a person of many worlds, but never comfortable in any, with self-esteem problems stemming from an awareness of not really belonging.

Or, you can fail to do either, creating a character whose only flaws seem to be occasional tactlessness (more in later books) and a tendency to dissolve into tears, who somehow pretty much rarely manages to be useful or awesome.

As in this book, where Poly’s chief accomplishments include getting kidnapped, getting jealous for no particular reason, and flipping out when her father (finally!) decides to do something ethical. She does manage to provide Adam with a convenient syringe/knife filled with a strong narcotic, and her insistence that he carry it later proves useful enough to allow me to sort of avoid the nagging question of just how a 12 year old got a hold of this. It does not help that, as in A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle uses infantilizing language to describe Poly and the older Kali, but not Adam or Charles.

And one final problem, alluded to in the comments of A Wrinkle in Time:

This book contains no hint that two of its major adult characters traveled through time and space.

This began L’Engle’s problematic pattern of frequently treating each book as if the previous one never happened. On the one hand, this does make it considerably easier to read each novel as a stand alone work, since no knowledge of previous books is ever necessary.But on the other hand, this seems to cheat her characters, particularly in the O’Keefe series, and that perhaps is why I am less fond of this series than the Austin and Murry books.

Mari Ness once had the unpleasant experience of spending several hours moving starfish to fresh tanks, which perhaps explains her lack of enthusiasm for echinoderms in general. She lives in central Florida.

This article is part of The Madeleine L'Engle Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
I found Adam very annoying- especially when compared to his more saintly characterization in Ring of Endless Light. If some attractive stranger came up to the 17-year old me in an airport, telling me a difficult-to-believe tale, why would I believe her, rather than my mentor of many years? (Clearly, Adam was thinking with a part of his anatomy not mentioned in many children's books!)
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
@Pam Adams - Yeah. I suspect I would have had an easier time with Adam if I hadn't read Ring of Endless Light first (years ago). Admittedly there's a huge publication gap between the two books, and Adam is supposed to have Learned Things, but, still.

I mean, the girl says, "Hi, I'm Kali." I really don't think she could have been any more obvious.
Tom Galloway
3. Tom Galloway
I agree completely that grown-up Meg is for all intents and purposes a pod person version of AWIT Meg, but consider that grown-up Calvin's also a case of "He's a what? now?". Namely, AWIT very specifically made it clear that Calvin's gift was communication, and that he was nothing special in math/science. And this leads to him becoming a worldclass marine biologist how exactly? As opposed to a teacher, diplomat, litagator, ad exec, etc. where his gift would actually be useful for the primary purpose of the profession (yeah, biologists have to communicate their work, but the work's primary).
Tom Galloway
4. Lsana
Arm of the Starfish was the last L'Engle book I read. I'd previously read Acceptable Time, assuming it was part of the Murray saga, without any clue that there were earlier books about Polly's previous adventures. I thought Acceptable Time did a much better job of explaining why Meg had never tried to get her PhD in math, and though I was a bit disappointed about that, I accepted Mrs. Murray's explanation that Meg didn't owe it to me or anyone else. Because of that, actually seeing her here didn't bother me all that much.

So this book didn't really bother me, but it didn't impress me either, certainly not enough to find the rest of the O'Keefe books. None of the characters did all that much for me, and the whole "it regenerates limbs but only on good things not on bad things like sharks" just made me roll my eyes.

Oh, and one more comment: don't assume that Calvin wouldn't need some serious upper level math in this research. Speaking as an algebraist/graph theorist who stumbled into biological research almost by accident, I suspect that Meg could find more than enough advanced math to keep her happy.
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@Tom Galloway -- I admit that I missed that bit about Calvin, but then again, most of the marine biologists I know have ended up as teachers, trainers, speakers on behalf of Florida fisheries/parks, running major luxury salt water aquarium businesses and so on, requiring extensive communication skills, so that didn't throw me too much. (Plus, I'm the English/medieval studies major who ended up in a graduate marine biology program. I admit it is rare, but it can happen.)

My guess, based on L'Engle's later books, is that this came more from L'Engle's growing interest in marine animals, and less on what was right for the character.

@Lsana - :: nods :: I encountered matrix algebra, calculus and statistics in my classes. (And the fun of programming calculus into Matlab, but I believe needs me to keep my comments safe for family reading so I won't elaborate on that.) And biological papers and articles often have a mathematical component, and of course Calvin O'Keefe in this book would not have had the advantage of a nice little SPSS program to do regression analysis for him.

But with that said, marine biology is still not _that_ focused on math, not to mention that Meg's interest seemed to lie more in abstract, higher mathematics than in the practical applications of matrix algebra as applied to coral reefs. Not to say that she couldn't have helped with what Calvin encountered or had her fun with it, but it just seems all wrong.
Tom Galloway
6. between4walls
I thought that (despite the selling-to-China issue) the threat was less from a deformed communist army than from unethical use of the technology for monetary gain. Cutter wants to sell it for the money, the dilution of antibiotics for profit in Graham Greene's "The Third Man" is metaphor through which the risk is explained to Adam, and the mutilations started when Calvin offered to pay for animal test subjects.

This book dovetails interestingly with the imo superior The Young Unicorns, in which the misuse of medical tech is motivated by megalomania rather than greed, and which features a less morally compromised but, by comparison, dangerously naive researcher.
Tom Galloway
7. Lsana
Since my previous comment, it's occurred to me that there is another good reason why Meg wouldn't have gone on in academia. In addition to her issues with knowing too much, there's also the fact that she refused to play the game. The game that says when your teacher is droning on and on about somethign you already know, you scribble diligently in your notebook, pretending to be taking notes when you're actually doodling or writing a sci-fi story. The game that says when your teacher is full of BS, you plaster the "that is the most fascinating thing I've ever heard" expression on your face and and complain to your friends later. You be a good girl and do as your told.

That game doesn't go away in grad school; in fact, it gets worse. You do what your advisor tells you, focus on putting out publications that people may or may not read, and make whatever changes to your thesis your committee wants whether or not they make sense. I can easily imagine Meg taking one look at all that and telling them to shove it.


There's more abstract and higher mathematics in biology than you might think. I'm not talking statistics but rather graph theory, formal grammars, abstract algebra, and the like. Right now, the field of Mathematical and Computational Biology is growing incredibly quickly. Now, admittedly when this book was published the idea of mathematical biology barely existed, but also when this book was published, no one had actually figured out how to regenerate human limbs using starfish either. I can easily see that requiring knowledge of starfish DNA and RNA and the interactions of the genes and proteins responsible for the regeneration. The math behind that is incredibly complex and could be an interesting challenge for someone of Meg's caliber.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

P.S. My sympathies on the Matlab. I hate Matlab.
Mari Ness
8. MariCats
@between4walls - You know, I think I mentally recoiled so much from the thought that creatures would regenerate differently depending upon whether or not they were purchased that I blocked the thought. L'Engle also brought up the actual case of Thalidomide which was was linked to birth defects and blamed on a failure to do enough clinical studies, but which seemed to be pretty indiscriminate on which babies it affected, so my (admittedly vague) background on that case may have colored my interpretation here.

I certainly agree that The Young Unicorns is a much superior book and more thoughtful on the ethical issues.

@Lsana - Ok, fair enough, although I'm still not getting the feeling that what Calvin is doing really involves that much advanced math, and as you note, that field was barely in existence when this book was written. (Sidenote: I know a couple of people working on doing DNA genome mapping for sea cucumbers and sharks, so this is definitely an already happening sort of thing.)

Interesting point on the issues Meg would face in grad school. I think that's true, and I'm willing to buy it as fanwanking. But I'm wondering if something else entirely is going on here -- something that has nothing to do with what Meg would or would not have done in grad school.

In L'Engle's books, advanced education -- doctorates in medicine, science or theology -- or high skill in music or both is associated with the best, most admirable characters - the ones that the girl protagonists most desperately want to resemble, but can't. I don't think it's a coincidence that Mrs. Murry is a Nobel-prize winning scientist, Mrs. Austin a musician, various secondary women characters hold doctorates, and the sibling Vicky most envies, Suzy, ends up as a doctor. Nor do I think it's a coincidence that Meg's twin brothers end up with advanced degrees, but she does not.

Because a repeated theme of the books where Meg and Vicky are protagonists is how inferior they feel to the others -- something that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when they do not go on for advance degrees even though both obviously could.

And yet, Meg and Vicky are also the protagonists L'Engle most closely identified with -- and she goes out of her way to show that both of them, whatever their inadequacies in the academic and musical achievements departments - are still attractive to men. Meg picks up the most popular, intelligent boy in school; Vicky in her last two books has three different guys in each book swarming after her. Ok, one's Zachary, so, yuck, but another one is an actual prince.

So on the one hand, you have L'Engle seemingly punishing her protagonists, by not allowing them these admired qualities. And on the other hand, you have L'Engle showing that these protagonists are still desirable.

And these are supposedly the two protagonists L'Engle most closely identified with (which probably also explains why they feel more "alive" than Poly.)

Not sure I'm making much sense here; it's rather vague in my head.

PS - I don't think "hate" is strong enough to express my feelings about Matlab. What a horrible program.
Tom Galloway
9. between4walls
@maricats- My comment was unclear. The animals didn't regenerate differently based on being purchased, but the maiming of animals by humans began when Calvin offered to pay for test subjects, so people started mutilating animals in order to sell them to him. So Calvin wound up accidentally incentivizing cruelty by purchasing the test subjects.

Insofar as it's a religious allegory and Adam Falls, I think L'Engle throughout the book is playing with all the usual options for what the original sin is. Greed, sex, knowledge (which leads to the knowledge-has-to-be-concealed motif you mentioned), and finally faithlessness or faith in the wrong things or people, which causes the catastrophe when Kali trusts her father and Adams trusts Kali.

The unscientific aspect of the regeneration technology can be read as part of the allegory, the fruit in the Garden of Eden able to grant eternal life or godlike knowledge or death and suffering. It's annoyingly unrealistic, though, and not actually necessary to the story.

The fact that American businessman Typhoon Cutter has enough influence in fascist, NATO-member Portugal to get away with murder complicates the Cold War aspect.
Mari Ness
10. MariCats
@between4walls -- I'm going to seize on your word "unnecessary," since it strikes me that it's the best way to sum up this book, and why The Young Unicorns ends up being so much the better read.

It's not just that the unrealistic allegory is unnecessary, but it strikes me that so much of the book is - the use of the O'Keefes as secondary characters (which would later create huge timeline issues with the Murry/Austin books, as we'll be seeing, even when L'Engle apparently decided to more or less have Vicky and Poly O'Keefe be contemporaries), several characters feel unnecessary, leaving the entire book with a tired feel.

Contrast with The Young Unicorns, a more assured book, where a seemingly chance statement about Shakespeare actually has a plot point later, the morality is given a nuanced, thoughtful discussion, the villain is reacting to a real problem, and so on. It just feels more, well, necessary.
Tom Galloway
11. ErikaRS
The comments about Calvin got me thinking. On the one hand, I think the comment that he was a marine biologist more because of L'Engle's interest in the subject than because it being fitting seems reasonable.

On the other hand, the reminder that his gift was communication got me thinking. Calvin is a good communicator, handsome, popular, and, for some reason unknown to Meg, falls for her warts and all. Especially if you've read _Two Part Invention_, this sounds a lot like Hugh Franklin, L'Engle's husband. So maybe pushing Calvin away from a role where the use for his communication talents were more obviously useful was, in part, an attempt to make Calvin less like her husband.
Mari Ness
12. MariCats
@ErikaRS -- Interesting, especially since L'Engle was known to include aspects of her real life in many of her books, and identified strongly with Vicky and Meg.
Tom Galloway
13. Drew Rieley
I have no idea what this fish or fishis are but the seem like good fish.
Tom Galloway
14. Laura Moore
If I remember correctly, Calvin experimented on only one human subject -- the little girl who lost her finger (to a shark?) -- and he only did it after much agonizing, and after consulting the tribal leader and Canon Tallis. Am I right on this?

It still may be ethically suspect, or even wrong, but he wasn't experimenting on humans extensively, as your post suggests.

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