what John Stuart Mill called 'conglomerated mediocrity'...

Conglomerated Mediocrity

Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns. The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted in grey. Each had a small, rectangular plot of lawn in front, with a straight line of dull-looking flowers edging the path to the door. Meg had a feeling that if she could count the flowers there would be exactly the same number for each house. In front of all the houses children were playing. Some were skipping rope, some were bouncing balls. Meg felt vaguely that something was wrong with their play. It seemed exactly like children playing around any housing development at home, and yet there was something different about it She looked at Calvin and saw that he, too, was puzzled.

'Look!' Charles Wallace said suddently. 'They're skipping and bouncing in rhythm! Everyone's doing it at exactly the same moment.'

This was so. As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball. As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball.

Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers.

Then the doors of all the houses opened simultaneously, and out came women like a row of paper dolls. The prints of their dresses were different, but they all gave the appearance of being the same. Each woman stood on the steps of her house. Each clapped. Each child with the ball caught the ball. Each child with the skipping rope folded the rope. Each child turned and walked into the house. The doors clicked shut behind them.

'How can they do it?' Meg asked wonderingly. 'We couldn't do it that way if we tried. What does it mean?'

'Lets go back.' Calvin's voice was urgent.

'Back?' Charles Wallace asked. 'Where?'

'I don't know. Anywhere. Back to the hill. Back to Mrs Whatsit and Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. I don't like this.'

'But they aren't there. Do you think they'd come to us if we turned back now?'

'I don't like it,' Calvin said again.

'Come on.' Impatience made Meg squek. 'You know we can't go back. Mrs Whatsit said to go into the town.' She started on down the street, and the two boys followed her. The houses, all identical, continued, as far as the eye could reach.

Then, all at once, they saw the same thing, and stopped to watch. In front of one of the houses stood a little boy with a ball, and he was bouncing it. But he bounced it rather badly and with no  particular rhythm, and sometimes dropping it and running after it with awkward, furtive leaps, sometimes throwing it up into the air and trying to catch it. The door of his house opened and out ran one of the mother figures. She looked wildly up the street, saw the children and put her hand to her mouth as though to stifle a scream, grabbed the little boy, and rushed indoors with him. The ball dropped from his fingers and rolled out into the street.

Charles Wallace ran after it and picked it up, holding it out for Meg and Calvin to see. It seemed  like a perfectly ordinary, brown rubber ball.

'Let's take it in to him and see what happens,' Charles Wallace suggested.

Meg pulled at him. 'Wrs. Whatsit said for us to go on into the town.'

'Well, we are in the town, aren't we? The outskirts anyhow. I want to know more about this. I have a hunch it may help us later. You go on if you don't want to come with me.'

'No,' Calvin said firmly. 'We're going to stay together. Mrs. Whatsit said we weren't to let them separate us. But I'm with you on this. Let's knock and see what happens.'

They went up the path to the house. Meg reluctant, eager to get on into the town. 'Lets hurry,' she begged, 'please! Don't you want to find Father?'

'Yes,' Charles Wallace  said, 'but not blindly. How can we help him if we don't know what we're up against? And it's obvious we've been brought here to help him, not just to find him.' He walked briskly up the steps and knocked on the door. They waited. Nothing happened. Then Charles Wallace saw a bell, and this he rang. They could hear the bell buzzing in the house, and the sound of it echoed down the street After a moment the mother figure opened the door. All up and down the street other doors opened, but only a crack, and eyes peered toward the three children and the woman looking fearfully out the door at them.

'What do you want?' she asked. 'It isn't paper time yet; we've had milk time; we've had this month's Puller Prush Person; and I've given my Decency Donations regularly. All my papers are in order.'

'I think your little boy dropped his ball,' Charles Wallace said, holding it out.

The woman pushed the ball away. 'Oh, no! The children in our section never drop balls! They're all perfectly trained. We haven't had an Aberration for three years.'

All up and down the block, heads nodded in agreement.

Charles Wallace moved closer to the woman and look past her into the house. Behind her in the shadows he could see the little boy, who must have been about  his own age.

'You can't come in,' the woman said. 'You haven't shown me any papers. I don't have to let you in if you haven't any papers.'

Charles Wallace held the ball out beyond the woman so that the little boy could see it. Quick as a flash the boy leaped forward and grabbed the ball from Charles Wallace's hand, then darted back into the shadows. The woman went very white, opened her mouth as though to say something, then slammed the door in their faces instead. All up and down the street doors slammed.

'What are they afraid of?' Charles Wallace asked. 'What's the matter with them?'

'Don't you know?' Meg asked him. 'Don't you know what all this is about, Charles?'

'Not yet,' Charles Wallace sai. 'Not even an inkling. And I'm trying. But I didn't get through anywhere. Not even a chink. Let's go.' He stumped down the steps.

After several blocks the houses gave way to apartment buildings; at least Meg felt sure that that was what they must be. They were fairly tall, rectangular buildings, absolutely plain, each window, each entrance exactly like every other. Then, coming toward them down the street, was a boy about Calvin's age riding a machine that was something like a combination of a bicycle and a motorcycle. It had the slimness and lightness of a bicycle, and yet as the foot pedals turned they seemed to generate an unseen source of power, so that the boy could pedal very slowly and yet move along the street quite swiftly. As he reach each entrance he thrust one hand into a bag he wore slung over his shoulder, pulled out a roll of papers, and tossed it into the entrance. It miht have been Dennys or Sandy or any of of hundreds of boys with a newspaper route in any one of hundreds of towns back home, and yet, as with the children playing ball and jumping rope, there was something wrong about it. The rhythm of the gesture never varied. The paper flew in identically the same arc at each doorway, landed in identically the same spot. It was impossible for anybody to throw with such consistent perfection.

Calvin whistled. 'I wonder if they play baseball here?'

As the boy saw them he slowed down on his machine and stopped, his hand arrested as it was about to plunge into the paper bag. 'What are you kids doing out on the street' he demanded. 'Only route boys are allowed out now, you know that.'

'No, we don't know it,' Charles Wallace said.

'We're strangers here. How about telling us something about this place?'

'You mean you've had your entrance papers processed and everything?' the boy asked. 'You must have if you're here,' he ansewered himself. 'And what are you doing here if you don't know about us?'

'You tell me,' Charles Wallace said.

'Are you examiners?' the boy asked a little anxiously. 'Everybody knows our city has the best Central Intelligence Centre on the planet. Our production levels are the highest. Our factories never close; our machines never stop rolling. Added to this we have five poets, one musician, three artists, and six sculptors, all perfectly channeled.'

'What are you quoting from?' Charles Wallace asked.

'The Manual, of course,' the boy said. 'We are the most oriented city on the planet. There has been no trouble of any kind for centuries. All Camazotz knows our record. That is why we are the capital city of Camazotz. That is why CENTRAL Central Intelligence is located here. That is why IT makes ITs home here.'

There was something about the way he said 'IT' that made a shiver run up and down Meg's spine.

But Charles Wallace asked briskly, 'Where is this Central Intelligence Centre of yours?'

'CENTRAL Central,' the boy corrected. 'Just keep going and you can't miss it. You are strangers, aren't you! What are you doing here?'

'Are you supposed to ask questions?' Charles Wallace demanded severely.

The boy went white, just  as the woman had. 'I humbly beg your pardon. I must continue my route now or I will have to talk my timing into the explainer.' And he shot off down the street on his machine.

Charles Wallace stared after him. 'What is it?' he asked Meg and Charles. 'There was something funny about the way he talked, as though -- well, as though he weren't really doing the talking. Know what I mean?'

Calvin nodded, thoughtfully. 'Funny is right. Funny peculiar. Not only the way he talked, either. The whole thing smells.'

'Come on.' Meg pulled at them.  How many times was it she had urged them on? 'Let's go find Father. He'll be able to explain it all to us.'

They walked on. After several more blocks they began to see other people, grown-up people, not children, walking up and down and across the streets. These people ignored the children entirely, seeming to be completely intent on their own business. Some of them went into the apartment  buildings. Most of them were heading in the same direction as the children. As these people came to the main street from the side streets they would swing around the corners with an odd, automatic stride, as though they were so deep in their own problems and the route was so familiar that they didn't have to pay any attention to where they were going.

After a while the apartment buildings gave way to what must have been office buildings, great stern structures with enourmous entrances. Men and women with briefcases poured in and out.

Charles Wallace went up to one of the women, saying politely, 'Excuse me, but could you please tell me--' But she hardly glanced at him as she continued on her way.

'Look.' Meg pointed. Ahead of them, across a square, was the largest building they had ever seen, higher than the Empire State Building, and almost as long as it was high.

'This must be it,' Charles Wallace said, 'their CENTRAL Central Intelligence or whatever it is. Let's go on.'


(Madeleine L'Engle, Chapter 6, the Happy Medium, A Wrinkle in Time)

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posted: August 1, 2007