Madeleine L’Engle 1965’s The Arm of the Starfish is the first of the Poly (later, Polly) O’Keefe quartet. Alternatively, it is an offshoot of the Time Quintet series (which began with A Wrinkle in Time).
Promising biology student Adam Eddington earns a summer tour working for renowned scientist Calvin O’Keefe on the isolated Portuguese island of Gaea. Sounds like a delightful summer? Not so fast.
Calvin is studying regeneration in starfish. If he can figure out how the starfish do it, perhaps he can help humans do the same thing. The record so far is mixed: some success, some failures. He’s been testing his methods on Gaea’s trusting natives1.
The tech isn’t ready for general release, but some bad people would like to get their hands on it. Enter beautiful Carolyn “Kali” Cutter and her dad, malevolent tycoon Typhon Cutter. They befriend Adam and attempt to poison his relations with other folks at the lab. The poor kid doesn’t know who to trust or how to navigate the murky waters of international intrigue.
Well, man is a member of phylum Chordata, and we developed directly from the phylum Echinodermata, or the starfish. We both had an interior spinal column and the same kind of body cavities.”
This overstates the connection between humans and the starfish (their common ancestor predates Echinodermata).
This is one of these books I reread only because the supply of SF books was so limited in the rural schools of Disco-Era Ontario. L’Engle was considered a safe choice for librarians, unlikely to attract unpleasant attention from parents, so libraries usually had an assortment of her books. Always A Wrinkle in Time and sometimes this one.
Not much in this book worked for me, then or now. The only plausible element is that Adam is a failure as an international man of mystery, which is just what you’d expect of a random sixteen-year-old2. He’s so bowled over by the hot hot young Kali that he never twigs to the fact that their meet-cute is clearly orchestrated or that she has an agenda. He might also have noticed her name; Kali, goddess of wrath? And her dad … he and his menacing henchman don’t seem like good guys. Note his name: Typhon. Evil giant serpent? L’Engle is heavy-handed with her clues.
Plot: the bad guy’s evil scheme doesn’t make any sense. Typhon wants to steal and then sell Calvin’s research to the Red Chinese. OK, so they’re bad guys, by 1965 American definition, but how can they turn regeneration to evil ends? Typhon would make more money marketing regeneration to the developed world, so why settle for some spare change from the Chinese?
Calvin is convinced that his research could be as dangerous as the atomic bomb. Why it would be dangerous is not clear. Nor is it clear why he’s persisting in his research if he thinks it could be harmful.
Readers expecting another Wrinkle would have been disappointed. There’s only two pluses to this book: the instructive manner in which the antagonist wraps himself in the American flag while conspiring against the US, and the fact the book is very short.
1: The island of Gaea is surrounded by ravenous sharks. Many locals are lacking a limb or two. They have a strong preference for bilateral symmetry and are willing to take some risks to achieve it. Also, experimentation on trusting POCs is a thing.
2: Polyhymnia O’Keefe, Calvin’s daughter, on the other hand, is smart and resourceful. She plays only a supporting role in this novel. If she’d been the protagonist and not Adam, the book would have been very different.