Scientists and Searchers: The Fiction of Sylvia Engdahl

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Though Sylvia Engdahl published fiction in the 1970s and early 1980s, I did not hear of her work until the early 1990s. Her name came up when several women of about my own age, all scientists of one or another sort, mentioned to me that Engdahl's writings had helped spur their interest in science. As a literature scholar, I was embarrassed that I had not heard of this writer. As a science-fiction fan I was chagrined to have missed out on books that, just from the bare description given them by my friends, I was certain would be of appeal. It was an exhilarating but odd experience reading Engdahl's books--books that one "should have read" around the time they were published, but did not. Reading a book like this is very different both from reading a classic one has never bothered to pick up, like The Pickwick Papers, or reading a new novel just favorably reviewed in the Times Book Review . There is a sense of reading a past part of oneself that one had never before known, of excavating a past level of reading that had never in fact existed and questions being answered that one never knew one had. In readerly terms, it is like finding a new room in your house, simultaneously like but unlike the rooms that are already there. Engdahl's work is an intellectual achievement as well as an engrossing entertainment. But the aforementioned aspect of coming upon a piece of one's "generational" reading that one had never actually done is no doubt an added ingredient in the fascination I now feel for it.

Engdahl has, on her website, herself described the reasons for her moderately revived popularity. This was signaled by the Meisha Merlin omnibus reissue of her Children of the Star trilogy (with a wonderful cover illustration by Tom Kidd; the book's availability from the publisher is currently iffy, but it can be easily purchased at or Engdahl's own website, The popularity of the Harry Potter books and the new marketability they gave to children's fantasy and the ability of the Internet to bring midlist or backlist books into greater prominence in publishing jump-started the process by which the books came back into print. The recent revival of interest in Engdahl is proof that the Internet has changed the world of books, and is not just a new medium for old publishing practices. Engdahl herself was barely aware of a readership until she began to receive e-mail from readers who had cherished her books. The Engdahl phenomenon, as self-selected as her audience remains, is a perfect illustration of Chris Anderson's thesis in The Long Tail that there are distributive mechanisms for worthwhile books to find discriminating readers through niche markets in the superstores and on the Internet. Engdahl's own responsiveness to her readers and her willingness to enter a dialogue with them has only accentuated her work's renewed viability in the Information Age.

Engdahl has published as a children's science-fiction writer. But that is not an adequate or at times even accurate way to describe her work. "Science fantasy" as a hybrid term was more in critical vogue when Engdahl was writing these novels than it is now; despite its vagueness as an indicator of genre, it may well be an apt term with respect to Engdahl. Her first few books, including the first book of the Children of the Star trilogy (on which this essay will focus) were genuinely in the category of young adult fiction, but the succeeding volumes of the trilogy were published only as children's books because Engdahl was already known as a children's writer, had won a Newbery Honor for her young adult novel Enchantress from the Stars (1970) and had a ready market with a prominent publisher--Atheneum. Thus the genre of Engdahl's fiction was determined more by what the sociologists would call "path dependency" than by any sense of adhering to genre norms or even of wanting to write for that market. There were also gender issues: Engdahl originally published the trilogy under her full name, "Sylvia Louise Engdahl," and it was felt by some that a double female name deterred male readers. I have a vague memory of coming upon Enchantress from the Stars in the public library when I was a child and being attracted by the space aspect but deterred by the femininity in both title and author name. Whether or not this is true, certainly many boys of my generation, as Francis Spufford has lovingly detailed in The Child That Books Built , read women writers writing about female protagonists, such as Louisa May Alcott or Laura Ingalls Wilder. Certainly Engdahl is no more "gynocentric" in focus than these writers. Her major work features a rather traditional male protagonist. Perhaps the answer to the male neglect of Engdahl's fiction is that Engdahl's work was in fact adult fiction by a woman writer, more comparable to Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, or the adult fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin than Alcott or Wilder. The trilogy is now available as adult fiction, in one volume. Though relaunched in the tidal aftermath of Harry Potter, and, like J. K. Rowling's books, featuring a young male initiated in a time-honored and bewildering system of knowledge, its adult relaunch is appropriate not because it is "too good" to be children's fiction, but because the questions it asks are adult questions, as Engdahl realized in her own writing process over a decade.

Sylvia Louise Engdahl was born in 1933. Engdahl grew up on the West Coast, reading actively though not thinking of herself seriously as a writer until her college years. Engdahl's mother, Mildred Butler Engdahl (who published under her maiden name, Mildred Allen Butler) was also a writer, publishing, late in life, historical novels and biographies of historical figures for children, one of which was on Anne of Brittany, consort to the French kings Charles VIII and Louis XII. Engdahl has spoken very warmly about her relationship with her mother, who died in 1987. Engdahl graduated in 1955 from the University of California, Santa Barbara and has spent much of her life on the West Coast, currently living in Oregon, where she has resided for many years. She began writing serious fiction in her early twenties, though she did not publish her first book until 1970. Coincidentally or not, Engdahl, to borrow the name of a series of literary-critical paperbacks popular at the time, was a "Writer for the 70s". She published nothing before that decade and only one book later. Engdahl seemed to disappear from the publishing scene after 1981. In fact she remained very active, especially in online communities, of which she was a pioneer, and, eventually, the Internet. Engdahl also taught in the online Connected Education program, which offered courses through the New School in New York, my current employer, for whom I began teaching online, in a different program, in 1996. Engdahl stopped teaching for Connected Education in 1995, so I missed having her as a colleague by a year. Engdahl has used the Internet both to communicate with a reignited fan base and to reflect on her published books. She has also revised them to suit new scientific and cultural circumstances and provided thoughtful commentaries on some of the issues raised in them. Although Engdahl's books have always been well reviewed (both originally and in re-issue, the 2006 version of Journey Between Worlds garnering especial acclaim), she has lacked visibility in critical writing, either on children's literature or on science fiction. Engdahl has thus had to serve as her own first critic, and (as seen on her Web page) has done so as astutely as she has practiced fiction and nonfiction. One of Engdahl's great strengths as a writer is her skill at explanation, analysis, and advocacy, and she continues to display these talents, especially speaking for space exploration and the human destiny to expand to other planets, which she has continued to champion in an age that for many years has turned a deaf ear to such pleas.

Engdahl's first novel, Enchantress from the Stars , was a Newbery Honor Book in 1971. It is in many ways a conventional young adult book, featuring a spunky heroine, Elana, who survives an exciting series of adventures and emerges both more mature and more wise. But there are several aspects of the novel that elevate it beyond the norm. Elana is of a species so advanced it can altruistically "care" for less evolved variants of humanity, subtly monitoring their development without overly interfering in their affairs. The primitive planet of Andrecia is one of the worlds under the benevolent vigilance of the Federation. When Andrecia is invaded by a third group of humans, more developed than the indigenous Andrecians but, unlike the Federation, imperialistic and conceited in their view of themselves with respect to "inferior" peoples, Elana is dispatched in order to save the Andrecians from Imperial domination without letting her own status as a Federation agent be revealed. The relativity inherent in the idea of three different stages of civilization--that the Imperial civilization, which thinks it is advanced and is alternately patronizing and exploitative toward the indigenes, is in fact regarded as equally as primitive by the Federation--is an anthropologically complex one. This complexity is fortified in literary terms. The book's action is told from three different points of view, each representing a level of perception. The surprising core of the book, though, concerns not the philosophical anthropology of various humanities, but the love between Elana and Georyn. Georyn is a young Andrecian lad who is uncommonly perceptive, but, thinking within the mythological perceptions of his people, he sees Elana as an "Enchantress" and the machine he has to destroy as a "Dragon." Despite the vast disparities in the way they can perceive the universe around them, Elana and Georyn do come to love each other in an adult way: Elana does not patronize Georyn just because he is a "Youngling." Georyn comes to recognize Elana's vulnerability, that she "'experienced all the joys and sorrows to which her human heart was heir." The idealism of Jarel, the Imperial doctor whose compassion toward the Andrecians prompts Elana to confide in him, is also admirable in its willingness to see beyond the self-preoccupations in his society. There is both a complexity and a wholesomeness about the book which makes it more than yet another example of adolescent self-discovery. There is a sense of risk and sacrifice, of the steps that must be taken in the service of hope.

This is also true in Engdahl's more adult work. Both the First Scholar and Noren are said to have the sense that "life's not as simple as people try to make it," and this "negative capability", this willingness not to put life's all-encompassing questions in convenient boxes, suffuses Children of the Star .

The Children of the Star trilogy (originally published separately as This Star Shah Abide , 1970, Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains , 1972, and The Doors of the Universe , 1981) takes this sense of risks and challenge and places it in a far more dire situation. The trilogy takes place on a harsh, desolate planet with few resources and with a level of civilization reminiscent of the early Middle Ages, with a mass of peasantry dominated by mysterious Scholars, who never show their faces, and Technicians who operate in the Scholars' service. Noren, a young villager, is bright enough to see the injustice of such a hierarchical system. When Children of the Star begins, we think we see a young idealistic religious dissenter who sees through the quasi-religious authorities of his planet and will eventually overthrow them. Young Noren risks the loss of his beloved, Talyra, and indeed his life in defying the beliefs of his people that the privileged castes of Scholars and Technicians must be obeyed until the magical, redemptive moment when the Mother Star appears in the sky. The reader thinks, with Noren, that he is defying a whole load of pseudo-religious hullabaloo, and we look forward, when he is arrested and brought into the City, to an Inherit The Wind -style confrontation between inquisitive good and hidebound, authoritarian dogma. What we get, though, is quite different.

This Star Shall Abide is, in the most positive sense of the term, an essay in reprogramming. Noren gradually learns that he was wrong, and that the Scholars were right--but in a different way than he had first thought. The people of the planet--there are few proper names for any places in this world, other than, for example, the Tomorrow Mountains on the other side of this world--are, for instance, told not to drink water that runs in the streams as it has not been purified by the Scholars. Noren finds that the water in the streams is in fact contaminated and he has risked his genetic integrity by drinking it.

Though Noren may seem at first to be a Harry Potter-esque protagonist, he grows far larger, more on the level of a Moses and Buddha-like self-sacrificing leader. Our sense of the society in which he lives also expands. Stefred does not run a school for gifted children. He is selflessly trying to shepherd a fragile civilization to the point of sustained viability. The absence of teacher-student rivalry between Stefred and Noren is refreshing, especially since their fundamental outlooks are so different. Noren is an innovator. Stefred is a responsible steward of the values he has inherited. Though they, at times, keep medium-term intentions and immediate tactics from each other, the two men have a mutual respect and never privilege their own motives over the common good. Stefred is the ideal teacher. He is encouraging, empathetic, confident in his own views, but unwilling to yoke his student to mere emulation of them. Stefred essentially views his knowledge as compelling him to provide a kind of "servant leadership". Noren does this too, eventually, in his own way. Noren also excels as a student. He is respectful, diligent yet curious and daring. He is willing to defy the models of his teachers when he perceives the lineaments of a different truth.

At first, Noren breaks the heart of his youthful beloved, Talyra. He explains to Talyra that he cannot adhere to his society's deepest belief that salvation would come with the appearance of the Mother Star in the sky according to the Prophecy. One of Engdahl's great proficiencies is displaying people at disparate levels of understanding, and how they reach across these cognitive thresholds with compassion and humanity. Noren, for instance, as a gesture of defiance and independence, has drunk the unpurified water whose consumption is one of the great prohibitions of the Scholars' prescribed order. He feels fine, and is exultant: he has disproved a tenet of the normative code! But when he comes to the City of the Scholars, he is gradually reoriented. The Scholars" threats of discipline were all for show, to placate the crowd. Instead, they put Noren through a careful and considerate program of(to them a benign sense of a fraught term) re-education; Noren is induced to relive the dreams of people who lived before him through a process of "controlled dreaming"--a process whereby, putting himself in the place of their consciousness and experiencing events that actually happened to the past individual, Noren learns the backstory of his own society. He comes to understand why drinking the water, although it did not have any immediate effects, was extremely dangerous. Thus he comes to a new level of perception while retaining the same values and outlook.

Noren had supposed that his people evolved from the savage subhumans known to be elsewhere on the planet, and that they had erected the beliefs about the Scholars and the return of the Mother Star as a facade of invented tradition. What he finds out is that his people had not originally come from this planet, which is fundamentally uninhabitable by humans. It has sparse resources and the water is so contaminated that, if drunk in large quantities it will change people's chemical makeup and cause them to generate subnormal, mutant children. The original home of Noren's people was the Six Worlds, an advanced planetary system where one of those worlds had existed for countless ages. On this world, life indeed evolved from lower animals as Noren had supposed they had on his world. The entire civilization of the Six Worlds had been extinguished when their star had suddenly become a nova, leaving one final expedition to colonize the recently discovered, severely unpromising planet on which they now live.

Stefred is the chief among the Scholars of the City. Noren had feared Stefred would be his tormentor or executioner, kind of a Grand Inquisitor. But we soon learn Stefred is a responsible leader. He has his reasons for promulgating his planet's odd regimen of living. Stefred explains that the people of the planet are refugees from a planet that had a long history of its own and had colonized five other worlds in its solar system. The Six Worlds had just begun to explore other planetary systems when, suddenly, their star became a nova, making sure that all six planets would be annihilated. The Six Worlds, in a short time, assembled a last-ditch expedition that would bring a fraction of humanity to one unsettled, barely habitable, resource-poor planet many light years away. Stefred becomes Noren's tutor and introduces Noren to the character of the First Scholar, the man who had led the final expedition and then formulated the basis for the survival of his people on the new planet. (The First Scholar, in his combination of prophecy and practicality, is a bit like Martin Luther, a bit like Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.) The expedition had only limited resources and was, in addition, shadowed by the traumatic obliteration of its members' worlds. The colonists already on the planet, though, did not know their worlds had been extinguished. Those that did were unhinged to the point of suicide. The First Scholar, whose own wife killed herself out of the nova-induced depression, desperately formulated an ingenious plan, which he loathed but which he knew was brutally necessary as the only alternative to extinction of their species. On the new planet, education and technology would be confined to a small caste of scientists. The mass of ordinary people would become farmers and would never be told that their worlds had been destroyed. This was necessary for their sheer survival, much less any hopes of getting back to their former state. Peter Nicholls and John Clute's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls the planet a "pyramid" society, and wrongly indicates that Engdahl is unwilling to disassemble the hierarchy. In fact she loathes it, as do the leaders of the planet in the fiction, who yet accept it as a grim necessity. The peasantry will have the truth handed down to them by the scientific caste, which meanwhile will feverishly work to transmute the elements so that metal, of which the planet is almost totally bare, can be produced and thus the society can become viable.

Far from being a mystical event, the reappearance of the Mother Star--the point at which the light from the nova will reach the new planet, which can be astronomically determined--will mark the time by which, it is hoped, the society will be sufficiently mature to face the truths of its genesis. Then it can disseminate knowledge to all the people. Convinced by this scenario, Noren ends up publicly recanting. Noren finds that, far from condemning himself to imprisonment or ostracism, he is now qualified to be a Scholar. As Stefred dramatically reveals, the only way to become a Scholar is to "become first a heretic." To question the truth of the system is the only way to administer it. The system is a last-ditch placeholder that waits fervently for the arrival of something better that will enable the species to survive on the alien world without it.

The first book of the Trilogy deals with Noren's enlightenment. Noren has come to realize that "the truth was far more complicated than he supposed it to be when he'd demanded free access to it." The second book deals with Noren's crisis of faith after accepting the "full" version of the Scholars' doctrines. Readers of the first edition of Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains also have their own beliefs shaken about the events of the previous book. Engdahl has said that she had expected the readers to realize that the original home planet of the humans in the trilogy is not Earth, saying on her website that "describing the home civilization as 'the Six Worlds' and stating that there were six all very similar to each other" should have warded off any Tellurian speculations. But one could argue that the initial reader probably thinks it is Earth and that the other five worlds are, say, the four largest Jovian moons plus Titan, all of which have been somehow terraformed. This is not an incidental detail, for supposing that it is Earth--and then eventually realizing this is not so--helps the reader empathize with Noren and his people's situation. On her website, Engdahl has, intriguingly, stated that one of the reasons, from the authorial standpoint, why it could not be Earth is that even the most tightly controlled and comprehensively disseminated religion could not replace the traditional religions of Earth people. (This is a very thoughtful point usually missed in slapdash speculations about the future). We see the people we thought were humans "like us" as in fact "aliens" after having been made to empathize with them. We are defamiliarized so as to shake our prejudices about the centrality of our particular incarnation of "humanity".

Noren is still a teenager in this book, and his sense of pointlessness in Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains is a bit "teenage" in its surliness, in fact slightly sophomoric. But it does serve the dramatic purpose of guaranteeing that progress toward the goal of sustainability is not just steady and sure. Noren's nagging sense of crisis is brought to a crux when he, Talyra, and his friend Brek go on an expedition to an outpost in the Tomorrow Mountains, the symbol of the future expansion of the planet's people beyond the City and its surrounding villages. Here, when their aircar crashes, the three face the urgency of survival amid unpurified water. Furthermore, rampaging, amoral mutants, "incapable of speech, much less rational thought," may eat Brek and Noren and subject Talyra to the "fate worse than death" of the old pulp novels. The aircar crash sets up a frontier, pioneering scenario which not only provides suspense but prompts the reader to reflect on issues of cultural evolution and the stages of human consciousness that are ever present in Engdahl's writing. The core of the trilogy is the people's sense that they are heirs of the advanced culture of the Six Worlds. Even though circumstances have forced them to live in a situation where, confined to one planet, the leaders have to dissimulate to the populace and keep in lulled ignorance all but inveterate searchers for the truth, they will one day return to being an open society--open in both the sense of being inquisitive and transparent and in the sense of proving outwards toward other planetary systems. A full civilization, a full life, is these people's birthright. Their ancestors had it; they are owed it. It is a part of the horizon of their thought. This sense of regaining a true destiny is what propels its action and fuels its sense of mission. It is less like the state of mind of the Israelites during the Exodus (they had, in effect, lost the memory of their spiritual calling, which had to be reintroduced to them by Moses) than, say, Italy during the Renaissance. The elite of Italy was determined to recapture the classical cultural heritage of Italy; they saw it not just as a blessing but a birthright.

What saves Noren, Talyra, and Brek just as they are about to be stranded forever is the discovery of an alien artifact, something left by past "Visitors", who have scouted the planet long ago. The artifact emits radio waves that alert the City to the danger. The "miraculous" appearance of the artifact helps convince Noren to formally become a priest, something he has resisted because he has insisted on hope as a finite truth rather than an asymptotic horizon to be sensed but never grasped determinatively, what the philosopher Jonathan Lear has recently termed "radical hope." Nothing is resolved in the second book. Indeed, the entire question of whether the people of the planet have a future still seems a quandary. Everything continues to be at a standstill.

The Doors of the Universe is the only totally "adult" part of the trilogy. If in the first book Noren's psychology is redolent of adolescent idealism, in the second it is filled equally with adolescent angst. But in the third, he is older, more resolute, and faces dilemmas more grim and complex than he has ever faced before. Though the novel ends on a hopeful note, this is only reached after many challenging and even disturbing passages. The Doors of the Universe is an intense and grueling read. As the narrative propels the reader forward in curiosity and anticipation, it is hard not to try to read it in one sitting, though that sitting may be as uncomfortable as the controlled re-experiencing of one of the First Scholar's dreams.

There was a long time-lag between Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains and The Doors of the Universe . (This may be one of the reasons for the trilogy's obscurity--by the time the third book came out, the formerly young-adult readers of the first two books had become adults and, mistakenly, concluded they were "too grown-up'" to read books like this.) Engdahl was seemingly as perplexed by how to work out the planet's situation on the meta-level as her characters were within the frame. The breakthrough comes, for both Engdahl and the characters, via genetic engineering. Engdahl had co-written a book on genetic engineering in the late 1970s, and came to see that genetic engineering, rather than the earlier-envisioned nuclear fusion, could, as Engdahl says on her website, "have enabled Noren's people to survive." The conceptual ceiling that had frustrated the investigative efforts of Noren's people was their insistence on remaining within the physical other than the biological sciences as a solution. Rather than contort the planet's elements to reproduce the physical situation they had known on the Six Worlds, what the people have to do is adapt their own bodies to the planet, by altering their genes so as to be able to drink the water and move about freely. In a sense, they have to make the same adaptation that Robert Frost suggested was part of the civilizing process of the United States:

But we were England's, still colonials, Possessing what we still were unpossessed by, Possessed by what we now no more possessed. Something we were withholding made us weak. Until we found out that it was ourselves We were withholding from our land of living, And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

The people must surrender their genetic fabric to the planet rather than garrison themselves against its chemicals and minerals. The First Scholar had enjoined that the people must leave behind the memory of the Six Worlds in order to survive on the new planet. A similar ecological adaptation must emulate the previous psychological adaptation. It turns out that the First Scholar himself had seen this, as Noren, via the computer system, finds a secret dream of his. The First Scholar had secretly conceived a genetically altered child with a woman scientist who shared his convictions--but it had turned out to be a mutant, and its mother had taken the child at a young age and gone to live with it in the mountains--no doubt to be eventually tortured and eaten by her subhuman brood. This devastating, pointless altruism is one of the most harboring emotional points in the trilogy. Furthermore, the mutants are not just castoffs--they are all that is left of the direct line of the revered First Scholar!

Noren vows to pursue the quest again. He is assisted by two women, Lianne, a protege of Stefred's who has unusual abilities, and Veldry, who bears the experimental child Noren sires. Noren at first feels apprehensive about asking Veldry to be more or less a baby machine--he does not love her--but she reveals that she is anxious to be of use to society. Most men are so beguiled by her beauty they see her in no other way. "I'm acclaimed for my beauty," Veldry complains, "and that is as far as anyone's looked." Veldry is the sort of complex psychological portrait for which realistic fiction of the latter half of the nineteenth century is often acclaimed. Engdahl's skill at depicting this minor character with subtle motivation demonstrates that, though she may have chosen the often marginal genres (marginal far more in the 1970s than today) of science fiction and children's writing, her practice as a writer is not so far from those writers who most often epitomize the novel form for us.

This is even more notable considering so many accoutrements of fiction are renounced. Dates are never given. The name of the planet is never given. Aside from personal names, no specific names are assigned to any of the tools or practices of the society, and people as important as the First Scholar, his wife, his later partner, and Noren's parents and siblings are unnamed. Thus Engdahl's skill at portraying an entire culture with her deliberately chosen economy of means is all the more impressive. The absence of concrete referents comes to make the reading experience more universal, less science fiction than alternate fiction of our own lived reality. In this respect, it is striking how little the trilogy has dated in over thirty years. The only major aspects Engdahl speaks of rewriting are formerly gendered language, now made more inclusive, and the references to computer technology. One major change that occurred just after the trilogy was completed was the widespread availability of the microcomputer. Engdahl wrote, in the original edition, as if huge, clunky mainframes that would, as Engdahl says on her website, "rely on immense RAMs" would prevail in a civilization of the relatively advanced stage at which the Six Worlds were before the nova hit. Indeed, in Noren's discovery of the First Scholar's suppressed genetic-engineering dream, Engdahl presents a kind of rogue computer programming, a wayward meme.

Scientific debates can arise from Engdahl's books. Does emphasis on space travel--we can always find other planets--lead to a trivializing of the need for stewardship of the earth? Does today's concern about climate change make space colonization more or less urgent? How does the discovery of other actual planets on other solar systems, not actually verified until 1995, impact her vision? Certainly, some issues, such as the stringent limits placed on human life by polluted water, seem more relevant. Senator Carl Levin's office recently commented that we "take clean drinking water for granted in this country, but filling this most basic need requires an ongoing commitment to the infrastructure that makes clean water possible." It is remarkable that Engdahl has been able to make as prosaic an issue as water purification one of the main poesies for an entertaining 700-page novel trilogy! (Just as J. R. R. Tolkien said something to the effect that The Lord of the Rings was, in one way, "about" trees, so is Engdahl's trilogy in one way "about" water purification). Engdahl's ability to bring these scientific issues alive runs in tandem with her not simply handing down dogmatic opinions about them. She opens the discussion to further response by the reader. The reader can quarrel with the book on the book's own terms. This is a sign that the book has established an interpretive community. It has promulgated norms within which the reader's mind can rove even if they dissent from the specific conclusion the author's mind has reached from those norms.

Without giving the plot of The Doors of the Universe totally away, it is enough to say a serendipitous development provides a way out of a seemingly insurmountable impasse. In this respect, the tendency of the realist novel to not rely on external devices but let the problems in the novel be solved with resources from within the tableau is one of its few genuine advantages over the science fiction novel. The possibility of a deus ex machina is endemic to the possibilities of science fiction in a way it is not in realistic fiction, although Engdahl has eschewed the Euripidean idea of a god from out of a machine, referring, on her web site, instead to "coincidences" that occur and are not' 'just due to chance--synchronicity, if you will. Or you can call it divine providence."

So the third novel of the trilogy has some problems in its status as a part of a trilogy. But, in reality, all trilogies, all those that are not just one book divided into three parts for publishers' convenience, have an asymmetry to them--C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy did, much more massively and deleteriously than did Engdahl's, as did, say, Robertson Davies's Deptford trilogy--the asymmetry of later books in the sequence reflecting the author's own changed point of view is part of the experimental nature of trilogies and other multi-book sequences. Thus the issues raised by the third book are endemic to the genre and the form, not just Engdahl's own work. These problems have to be tolerated as part of the adventurousness of the form. Maybe, like the inhabitants of the trilogy's planet, we need to adapt our readerly DNA to the genre's circumstances rather than try to hunker down, defensively limited by inherited realistic expectations. In a sense, the serendipitous event is a dramatic shortcut for the more gradual progress that the tone and scientific rigor of the trilogy would demand, yet would be fairly tedious in exposition.

Without giving it away, the serendipitous "solution" does rely on ideas of different levels of development in different cultures. Though Engdahl is at pains to distance ideas of cultural evolution from internal cultural difference within a world, and thus distance them from anthropologically prejudiced rhetoric such as European culture being more "'advanced" than others, the rhetoric of cultural evolution, if undertaken today in the advanced social sciences, would have to be phrased differently than Engdahl does. Engdahl herself implies this on her website when she realizes that people today tend to say "space settlements" rather than "space colonies" due to the association of colonization with ideas of racial and ethnic supremacism. In Enchantress , she takes pains to point out, as Elana's father says, that the analogy between a maturing individual and an evolving species is "apt in some respects, but not in all."

Engdahl, even in her own terms, values cultural difference greatly. Even the difference between the evolved and the less evolved can contain suspense and drama, not just glib assumptions of superiority. For instance, there is the prospect that Elana at one point faces in Enchantress , of being imprisoned her entire life in pretending she is of a less evolved species. There is also the threat of torture and annihilation in the second, but very different, "Elana" book, The Far Side of Evil (1971). Finally, in Children of the Star , the specters of general dying out amid depleted resources and, as specifically faced by Brek, Noren, and Talyra in the second book, being eaten and raped by subhuman mutants, are vivid and frightening ones that show Engdahl's capacity to stare evil and suffering in the face. Her happy endings are philosophically vouchsafed by a glimpse of misery and torment that is more than lip service. The role of the Federation in her book resembles that of the Culture in the space novels of Iain M. Banks, the Ekumen in Le Guin's Hainish books, or Canopus in Doris Lessing's science-fiction quintet. It is meant more as an overarching rubric than as a universal panacea.

Some of Engdahl's readers have asked why the trilogy is not more woman-centered. Why does Noren function as a rather traditional male protagonist? Engdahl has, on her website, riposted that she is portraying a world that has had to retreat to more primitive conditions in order to survive, and that a patriarchal order, including the reservation of leadership roles to men, is a symptom of these primitive conditions. There are, though, strong female characters in the books, including women who face challenging and severe dilemmas. Talyra, Veldry, and Lianne are three very different young women, each of whom have their own personal relation to the Prophecy and to the mission of reopening their planet to the universe. (This essay has had to underplay the tenderness and pain of Noren's relationship with Talyra in order not to reveal crucial plot details, but it is one of the major emotional strands of the book.) The First Scholar's partner, who sacrifices herself to take her mutant child into the mountains, performs an action of altruism and renunciation so "maternal" in orientation that the male reader, at least this male reader, has difficulty understanding it in emotional, as opposed to intellectual, terms. It might also be recalled that, despite the prominence of feminism in the 1970s, other female science fiction writers like Le Guin generally also featured male protagonists in their works of that decade, and turned to a more overtly woman-centered perspective only in the 1980s.

Engdahl is a thorough, analytical writer. She is less a born storyteller (though her plots can be very exciting) than somebody who uses narrative to embody intellectual issues that cannot meaningfully be worked to in any other form. There is an undeniable talkiness about Engdahl's fiction, at which the reader who insists on continual dramatization or foregrounding of fictional gimcrackery will cavil. But this talkiness could also impress with its expository vigor and its willingness to reason out ideas in fictional form. If there was such a thing as science fiction nonfiction (one thinks of writers such as Olaf Stapledon, whose novels seem like Cliff's Notes of a future history) Engdahl would largely fall into that category, although, as said before, the trilogy is not without scenes of considerable adventure, suspense, and emotional involvement. After reading the book, one's thinking, without becoming linear or rigidly algorithmic, begins to be better organized, better able to approach immediate problems in a rational way. Engdahl's books are contes philosophiques . One can see them being useful companions to an Ethics or Science in Society class, or even a class in the phenomenology of religion. Without being too academic and pompous about it, one may contend that Engdahl's work offers new possibilities of communication between the sciences and the humanities as disciplines.

Despite its disjuncture in several ways with the two other books of the trilogy, The Doors of the Universe is arguably Engdahl's strongest work. Why, then, did this book remain her last published novel for so long? Why did Engdahl not write a book from 1981 to 2007? Engdahl has given her own reasons, saying on her website: "Thinking up the action in fiction has always been very hard for me--I've had plenty of themes, settings and characters in mind, but in a story something has to happen! It's the happenings that I can't often come up with. Strange as this seems to my friends (and for that matter, to strangers) it's something I can't control. This is not 'writer's block.' I never have any trouble expressing thoughts in words. But my thoughts don't normally take the form of eventful narrative. Actually, the mystery is why I was able to write fiction during the late 60s and early 70s; before and for many years thereafter, my talents were more analytical than imaginative." Engdahl states (e-mail to the author, 17 April 2007) that books like hers were "no longer being accepted in the Young Adult field due to library funding having dried up after the 70s." It is also suggestive that, in 1981, when The Doors of the Universe was published, the first space shuttle mission was launched. A less glamorous vision of space travel began, one that postponed any idea of colonization of other planets into the vague distance. This coincided with a general sense that the very idea of scientific progress was now problematic.

As Francis Wheen has argued in his 2004 book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World , in the past twenty-five years a host of various irrationalisms--Islamic fundamentalism, Anglo-American renascent conservatism, New Age mysticism--and fetishism of local knowledge has made a technocratic optimism such as Engdahl's unfashionable. It is true that Engdahl, whose interest in psychokinesis, telepathy and other forms of paranormal abilities is evident in the Elana books, is hardly a strict or dogmatic rationalist. There is, indeed, a deep spirituality in the books, which emerges particularly in the third book whose search for truth is as much spiritual as scientific. But there is something nonetheless suggestive about the apposition of Wheen's conjecture and Engdahl's not choosing to publish books after 1981. Engdahl is a qualified defender of rationalism, describing, on her website, the diffusion of energies that could be harnessed towards space colonization into other outlets: "This is the price we pay for our innate progressiveness. I know that it is now fashionable to deride the concept of progress, and certainly we cannot say that progress is inevitable. It surely doesn't characterize all change in all areas of human endeavor. Nevertheless, overall, the human race as a whole advances; if it did not we would still be cavemen. This is what distinguishes our species from all others. And like it or not, this drive is inseparable from the drive toward growth and expansion. Many successful species colonize new ecological niches; this is one of the fundamental features of evolution. When a species can't find a new niche, and the resources of the old one are no longer sufficient, it dies out." Another solution to the enigma of Engdahl's long literary silence may simply lie in Engdahl's dealing with difficult questions in a genre not frequently seen as accommodating such questions.

As someone who, again, did not come to Engdahl until adulthood, I can only imagine, and to some extent envy, the experience of recognition and reflection felt by those readers who knew Engdahl's work as adolescents and are now renewing their acquaintance with the current revised editions, sharing the challenges of mature life as surely the author did when she was writing them. But, just as the planet in the trilogy cannot, as Stefred sometimes seems to wish, remain in the stasis of the bare equilibrium it has eked out, Engdahl's fiction must seek the interest of a wider constituency. In their daring, analytical rigor, and psychological intensity, they have a lot to offer the discerning reader. As the generation born in the 1930s becomes the senior generation, perhaps we will value more their characteristic faith in the combination of technical expertise and democratic procedures. The Children of the Star is suffused with this faith. Its essential subject is how knowledge should be for everyone, and what conditions a society must achieve in order to make that democratic vision feasible. In this context, Engdahl's convictions could well be ones worth heeding.

In 2007, Engdahl finally returned to fiction, producing Stewards of the Flame , a work that even the most determined classifier could not put into a young-adult framework. Set in another planetary system in a relatively near future where Earth has established many space settlements , Stewards is about a space captain who suddenly finds himself in a medicalized totalitarian system, where prescription drugs are used to enforce a mandatory state of health. Unlike Noren, he does not find the oppressive system plausible once he knows more about it. Indeed, he comes upon a small but determined opposition group, the "stewards" of the title--among whom he finds love and personal definition. The stewards harness telepathic powers in order to frustrate the domination of "the meds", leading to a denouement that is risky and deft. Engdahl, in a polemical way, is opposed to the way prescription drugs are used in our society to supply medical solutions to the diversity of personal temperaments, but the book can be enjoyed as a story even by those who do not share Engdahl's views. The reader is also free to attach other meanings to the dynamic of oppression and attempted liberation, possibilities all too proliferating in our age.

2007 also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the year Sylvia Engdahl began to write the book that eventually became Enchantress from the Stars , beginning her career of using science fiction and science itself as a way to search into the radical hope and the daring leaps of destiny available to the human soul. Her visionary, mature, and resolute optimism will continue to delight and instruct readers, perhaps even into the far future of which her books give so tantalizing a possible glimpse.

Sylvia Engdahl

Sylvia Louise Engdahl was born in Los Angeles in 1933 and graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1955. She is the author of fourteen books, including seven science fiction novels, three nonfiction books and a children's picture book. Her work has received such honors as the Independent Publishers Book Award, the Newbery Honor Book Award and the Phoenix Award. Besides enjoying a career as an engineer and a teacher of online courses in media studies, Engdahl has been an editor of several fiction and nonfiction anthologies. She lives in Oregon.


Books by Sylvia Engdahl



New York, N.Y.: Atheneum 1970

New York, N.Y.: Penguin/Firebird, 2003. $6.99 (pa.)


New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1970

New York, N.Y.: Penguin/Firebird, 2007. $6.79 (pa.)


New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1971

New York, N.Y.: Penguin/Firebird, 2005. $9.99 (pa.)


New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1972


New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1973


New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1981


(includes This Star Shall Abide, Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains ,

The Doors of the Universe )

Decatur, Ga.: Meisha Merlin, 2000


North Charleston, S.C.: BookSurge, 2007. $19.99 (pa.)



New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1974


(with Rick Roberson)

New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1977


(with Rick Roberson)

New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1979


(picture book, illustrated by Don Sibley)

New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1979


Nicholas Birns lives in New York City where he teaches literature at Eugene Lang College, The New School. His teaching specialties include Victorian and modern fiction and literary theory. His book Theory After Theory , a survey of the current state of literary criticism, is under contract to Broadview Press. He is also the author of Understanding Anthony Powell .