Scientists and Searchers: The Fiction of Sylvia Engdahl

By Birns, Nicholas | Hollins Critic, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Scientists and Searchers: The Fiction of Sylvia Engdahl


Birns, Nicholas, Hollins Critic


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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 amazon.com or Engdahl's own website, www.sylviaengdahl.com). 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. …

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