Author: Sylvia Louise Engdahl
Synopsis: Elana, a young diplomat-in-training with the most advanced civilization in the universe, stows away on a mission to protect a feudal society from planetary invasion by a scientific, space-age empire.
Notes: Perhaps my favorite thing about this book is simply the beautiful way it’s written. It weaves three unique narratives together, section by section:
- Georyn (pronounced JOR-in), the medieval hero who goes to slay a dragon; his thoughts are written in the language of fairy-tales
- Jarel, the scientist, who alone of his fellow Empire subjects has learned to see the planet's natives as human
- Elana, the very young narrator, who attempts from above-and-beyond to speak for both men as well as herself.
The incorporation of fantasy elements into a science fiction story fascinated me (not least because I’ve done something of the reverse in my own novel.) Georyn, the brave dragon-slayer, undergoes three magical tasks in preparation for his quest. He sees Elana as ‘the Enchantress,’ a beautiful and benevolent magician, and he stands prepared, like any knight, to defend the Lady’s life and honor. Jarel is more of the usual sci-fi type in his love for planetary exploration and his scientific beliefs, which hold primacy over anything that could be called faith. Both men, however, are outside their time and culture enough to catch onto Elana’s spirit and long for something more than what they can have.
Elana—and here comes Ms. Engdahl’s point—lives the ideal toward which human progress is supposedly striving. Engdahl believes in and hopes for such a future. And while to me, interplanetary utopia seems as unlikely as the magic Georyn believes in, Engdahl comes from a place that I can at least sympathize with—namely, that neither pure scientism nor simple superstition provides a full outlook on life. She, I think, would at least say that science and what we might call mystery must work together. Maybe she’d accept the term faith. But I would even call it religion. Be that as it may, Elana’s resolution of those alchemical contraries provides a beautiful, albeit staunchly moralistic, picture of what might happen if humanity could achieve such near-perfection.
Speaking of the moralism, Elana and her father have decidedly philosophical debates on why their community requires what it does. I rather enjoyed this, instead of getting turned off by the author’s thoughts and theorizing. At least, on first read. The Starwatcher was such a lovely Wise Old Mentor that I couldn’t help myself.
Traditional themes of self-sacrifice, compassion and courage are canvassed as well. Toward the end, this actually moved me to tears.
Lois Lowry’s foreword is worth the read, too, although she makes the all-too-common mistakes of assuming first, that separation of church and state is constitutionally mandated, and second, that it was designed to keep all religious discourse out of politics. At least she confines that to one sentence, and the rest is enjoyable.
Recommendation: Read it beside a window on a starry night, and dream.