Enchantress from the Stars:
Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Star Trek and Science Fiction
Carol LittlejohnLike an enigmatic enchantress, Sylvia Louise Engdahl emerged on the science fiction horizon in 1970 to glowing reviews. Her second young adult novel Enchantress from the Stars (1970) was a Newbery Honor book, and many were anticipating a long career for Engdahl. However, her meteoric career was brilliant but short-lived. After producing six young adult novels, ranging from excellent to adept, Engdahl produced a picture book and several nonfiction books about scientific issues. Surprisingly, like an enchantress who mysteriously appears and disappears, Engdahl has not produced a young adult novel in almost two decades. Many teachers, librarians and scholars have only a dim recollection of her unique contribution to young adult science fiction. Her work needs closer scrutiny because her books are written for "aliens" to the genre of science fiction. This article will conduct a literary biography and a historical analysis of Sylvia Louise Engdahl. Her six novels are Journey Between Worlds (1970); her first series: Enchantress from the Stars (1970) and The Far Side of Evil (1971); and a trilogy: This Star Shall Abide (1972), Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains (1973), and The Doors of the Universe (1981). These novels will be compared to her purpose and philosophy expressed in Engdahl's Horn Book article "The Changing Role of Science Fiction in Children's Literature" (1971, pp. 448-455). Next, her techniques of using the characters and plot to express her philosophy will be discussed as well as her unique contribution to young adult literature. Perhaps a brief biography is necessary to explain how Engdahl became interested in science and in writing for young adults. Born in 1933, Engdahl graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and, after a short career as a teacher, Engdahl developed programs for air defense computers. She enjoyed the technical writing and was perhaps influenced by the successful young adult career of her mother, Mildred Allen Butler (Silvey, 1995, pp. 224-225).
Engdahl's novels are labeled as science fiction but are certainly not traditional science fiction with stereotypical robots and ray-guns. Instead, Engdahl's plots are more concerned with scientific philosophy than technology. In a sense Engdahl's philosophy is similar to the philosophy of the Star Trek series, a television series that began in 1965, lasted only three years, but had already achieved cult status. The Star Trek series stresses the importance of space exploration in a highly complex universe; the space missions are always peaceful excursions into exploring the unknown. However, the crew from the Star Trek Enterprise are under orders not to assume an active role in changing alien civilizations. Engdahl's scientific philosophy is remarkably similar.
In her Horn Book article, Engdahl discusses her philosophy about the future of humans and science: "Science fiction differs from fantasy not in subject matter but in aim, and its unique aim is to suggest real hypotheses about mankind's future or about the nature of the universe" (1971, p. 450). She also stresses that a science fiction writer "can and should suggest that whatever comes will be linked to some universal pattern, a pattern involving spiritual as well as physical principles" (p. 452).
This philosophy is not specifically geared to the avid science fiction fan. Engdahl writes for a wide and varied audience, including both sexes and any age, for she believes "the future is of interest to us all" (p. 452). She emphasizes that each of her books serves a different purpose and, thus, is written for a different audience.
For example, Engdahl's first novel Journey Between Worlds (1970) is written for readers who have never expressed an interest in space travel. The novel describes Melanie's venture on the planet Mars and her reluctance to begin a new life. Interestingly, Journey was not published until the publication of her second novel, Enchantress from the Stars (1970).
Enchantress is more ambitious in style, structure, and characterization. The heroine Elana is from an advanced civilization who attempts to secretly help a less developed planet from alien attack. Engdahl represents Elana as a strong female character, an approach that was considered unusual in 1970 since feminism was a relatively new issue. (Incidentally, in the original script, Star Trek had a female co-captain, Major Barrett, but the idea was dismissed as being too controversial.) The two male characters, Georgyn and Jarel, are from civilizations that are not as scientifically and spiritually advanced. Engdahl artfully varies the writing style from Elana's first-person account to Jarel's third person account to an almost medieval omniscient narration.
The Far Side of Evil (1971) continues the series as Elana explores the planet Toris. Toris seems suspiciously like the planet Earth with its use of nuclear weapons, race riots, and drug usage. Some reviewers were not as impressed with the sequel, calling it "didactic" (Huck, Hepler & Hickman, 1976, p. 384), but others called the sequel "powerful" (Silvey, 1995, p. 225).
Engdahl's trilogy follows with This Star Shall Abide (1972), Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains (1973) and The Doors of the Universe (1981). In this series Noren questions his planet's social order and these questions involve genetics, religion and metaphysics. Reviewers compared this series favorably to John Christopher's The White Mountains series with its believable characters, suspenseful plots, and unique philosophy.
However, John Christopher's series reveals a more somber outlook of the future. Engdahl has a more positive approach. She writes, "I have an optimistic view of the universe" (Horn Book, 1972, p. 250). All Engdahl's books explain her philosophy. She believes in three developments for a hopeful future: the natural progression of technology, the necessity of space exploration, and the need for spiritual belief in the future. With these three factors, Engdahl believes that an optimistic viewpoint is a valid assumption.
The first factor that expresses Engdahl's optimistic belief is the theory of the natural progression of technology. The theory is complicated, but Engdahl refers to this theory in at least thirteen lengthy passages. Apparently Engdahl feels that each civilization progresses in stages and that each crisis "will be linked to some universal pattern" (p. 252). Engdahl explains these stages in Enchantress from the Stars:
It is by now a well-known fact that the human peoples of the universe have similar histories Ñ not specific details are similar, but the same patterns emerge on every home world. Each must pass through three stages: first, childhood, when all is filled with wonder, when man admits that much is unknown to him calling it "supernatural," yet believing. Then adolescence, when man discards superstition and reveres science.... And, at last, maturity, when the discovery is made that what was termed "supernatural" has been perfectly natural all along, and is in reality, a part of the very science that sought to reject it. (p. 16)
In 1970 the United States was obviously in the "adolescence" stage in a search for identity from the Vietman War, civil rights, and campus demonstrations. Almost thirty years later, America is still confined to "adolescence" with an emergence of the "New Age" philosophy that combines the "supernatural" with science. Thus, Engdahl's philosophy of the progression of technology is still relevant because she has accurately foretold the future. Engdahl is very clear about any interference from outside forces:
The same patterns have shown up on every world that has ever been studied; any attempt to change these patterns...has invariably not led to good, but to an even worse evil: the stagnation and eventual downfall of the civilization involved. It's been learned the hard way that natural progression can't be tampered with. (Enchantress, p. 136)
It may appear that the theory of natural progression is fatalistic and that people can only shrug their shoulders and cope. Not at all. Engdahl believes that only by people's efforts can society advance into the next stage of development. One character states: We must work for it. A hard job? Of course, because there were evils to be processed, evils like the one committed on one planet; and if you were involved, you had to accept personal responsibility, not some vague share of a collective guilt that didn't exist. Yet you had to be involved. Where would anything ever get if everybody who had any moral scruples dropped out? (Enchantress, p. 262)
Interestingly, Engdahl wrote this philosophy years before the 1973 Watergate hearings when the spotlight focused on the United States government, media, and democracy. After Watergate, Americans took more responsibility for their actions with an active interest in government officials and activities. Engdahl would probably describe "Watergate" as a natural progression of an advancing civilization .
Along with the Earth's progressive stages, Engdahl also sees the universal pattern as leading to one specific goal: the exploration of space. The character Alex explains this theory in Journey Between Worlds with his statement that "the conquest of space helped to bring about peace. Energy that went into space would have gone into war" (Journey, p. 96). Engdahl also develops this theory more extensively in the novel The Far Side of Evil: If a space program is undertaken, it becomes all absorbing, full-scale war is
This theory of space exploration is an expansion of the "natural progression" theory. Engdahl stresses that space exploration is a final result of a mature civilization and is a method to unite all cultures of the Earth. In 1970 many Americans would have agreed with Engdahl. After the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the federal deficit, many Americans were reluctant to continue with space exploration. However, recently President Bill Clinton has announced a new U.S. space policy to put a robot on Mars by 2000 and to conduct a broader exploration of the universe. Also, with the success of the movie Apollo 13 and the reemergence of science fiction films like Stargate and Independence Day, many Americans are ready to explore that final frontier called space.
After pondering Engdahl's philosophy, the analytical reader will ask, "In what can we believe?" Engdahl's answer is to maintain a blind faith in the outcome. Noren, the protagonist from Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains, questions the way that men can learn to cope in a crucial stage of development. He answers his own query with this philosophy:
(He) knew that there had been men who had not given up. They had recognized mysteries that they could not resolve and had borne it; they had gone on gathering the bits and pieces of the truth available, in full knowledge that they would fail to assemble the whole pattern.
And he knew that these men had been sustained only by faith. Their faith hadn't been called a religion. Sometimes it had; but many, particularly the later ones, had simply trusted there was a pattern without using any symbols for the elements beyond their grasp (Beyond the Tomorrow Mounatin, p. 78)
The character Elana sees religion as a universal hunger in all civilizations:
There's a power in the universe that all religions reach out towards. I can't tell you the name for it. The name doesn't matter; different people, different places, have different ones. I have not forgotten it exists... Thousands years from now, looking back, people will know where it led; and they still won't see what's coming next. No matter how much knowledge they have--knowledge of the whole universe, maybe--they'll still have to trust without seeing. (The Far Side of Evil, P. 78)
This faith in the universe is separate from a belief in an orthodox religion. According to Engdahl, all that is required is a faith in a universal pattern.
Engdahl's optimistic philosophy of science and of the future is projected in all of her books. How does she express this philosophy in her books? How successful are these methods?
Engdahl uses three methods: stereotyping of characters, developing an original plot, and limiting a particular work to a particular audience. Each of these methods will be discussed in detail.
One of Engdahl's techniques is to employ her characters to express her philosophy. Perhaps it is somewhat hyperbolic to state that her characters are stereotypical, but a close analysis of all her novels suggests that she does limit the characters in their actions and beliefs. Engdahl structures her novels so that one character within each book is self- confident, articulate, likable, and mature; this character will verbalize Engdahl's optimistic philosophy. For example, "strong" characters are Alex in Journey Between Worlds, Elana in the Enchantress series, and the Scholar Stefred in This Star Shall Abide.
Engdahl employs another type of character as a "sounding board" to the "strong" character. This character is basically confused Ñ either blindly naive or bitterly cynical Ñ and yet flexible enough to listen to new ideas. Melinda in Journey, Georyn and Jarel in Enchantress, Kari in Evil, and Noren in the trilogy contain these characteristics. Adolescent readers identify more strongly with these characters because of the identity crisis they are undergoing. The "strong" characters must sway the reader as well as the confused character.
This technique is not as obvious as it appears because Engdahl switches the role of the protagonist within each of her novels. Elana from the Enchantress series is a confident, self-assured female protagonist in one series; on the other hand, Noren is a doubtful, cynical protagonist in Engdahl's trilogy. Thus, Engdahl uses both "weak" and "strong" characters as her protagonists. However, after determining the "type" of character, the reader can expect certain actions from the protagonist.
At times this technique can hinder Engdahl's impact upon the reader. The "strong" character can become too didactic and dogmatic as in Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains and The Far Side of Evil. These two books are her weakest because at times the moralizing of the "strong" characters interferes with the pace of the plot.
Engdahl's plot development is one of her major assets. All the reviewers agreed that Engdahl develops an original and refreshing plot. Underlying these original plots, however, is a basic similarity. She invents a civilization that is removed in time and space from Earth, but the analogy is clear, such as the planet Toris in The Far Side of Evil. For example, Elana explains her philosophy of "critical stages" to Kari and, presumably, to the reader as well.
Engdahl is always aware of her audience of readers. She says, "I try, of course, to direct my work to young people of various tastes. My books are quite different from one another. Though many readers like them all, each story seems to have found an additional, and more or less separate, audience" (Horn Book, 1972, p. 253). Engdahl does vary her style to suit the audience. For instance, Journey Between Worlds is a fairly simple, romantic novel of a girl's trip to Mars and only a portion of Engdahl's philosophy is contained in this book.
Chronologically Engdahl's books increase in complexity. As stated, her first novel Journey Between Worlds (1970) is simple in structure, vocabulary and theme; her last novel The Doors of the Universe (1981) is short on plot and thematically complex. After completing her trilogy, without any fanfare or announcements, Engdahl's young adult novels ceased. Perhaps Engdahl quit writing young adult science fiction novels because she felt that she had said all she needed to say or that she was becoming repetitious. Nevertheless, her stopping writing is a loss to young adult literature because Engdahl bridges the gap between the science fiction enthusiast and the disinterested novice. Also, from a feminist perspective, her characters remain "politically correct" almost thirty years later. Amazingly, her philosophy has not become dated but, like Star Trek, is still relevant. If, like an Enchantress from the stars, Engdahl has disappeared from writing young adult science fiction, then we are fortunate that we still have her books to enthrall and enchant us.
May her books live long and prosper.
Engdahl, Sylvia Louise. Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains. Illus. by Richard Cuffari. Atheneum, 1973.
Reviews: Booklist 69, p. 947
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 26, p. 89
Huck, C., S. Hepler, and J. Hickman. Children's Literature in the Elementary
School, 4th ed. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1976, p. 388.
The Kirkus Review 40, p. 335
_____. "The Changing Role of Science Fiction in Children's Literature," Horn Book. October, 1971, pp. 448-455.
_____. The Doors of the Universe. Atheneum, 1981.
Reviews: Booklist 77, p. 1084.
Best Sellers, May, 1981, p. 78.
Center for Children's Books, June, 1981, p. 192.
Journal of Reading, November, 1981, p. 179.
School Library Journal, April, 1981, p. 128.
VOYA, June, 1981, p. 37.
_____. The Far Side of Evil. illus. by Richard Cuffari. Atheneum, 1971. Reviews: Horn Book, p. 172 (Andrews).
Huck, C., S. Hepler, and J. Hickman. Children's Literature, 1976, pp. 384, 388.
School Library Journal, p. 1514 (Haynes).
_____. Enchantress from the Stars. illus. by Rodney Shackell. Atheneum, 1970.
Reviews: Horn Book, p. 165 (Viguers).
Huck, C., S. Hepler, and J. Hickman. Children's Literature, 1976, p. 30, 42, 388, 705, 725.
School Library Journal 95, p. 3533 (Haynes).
_____. Journey Between Worlds. Atheneum, 1970.
Reviews: Horn Book 46, p. 481 (Burns).
Arbuthnot, M. H., and Z. Sutherland, Children and Books, 4th ed. Scott, Foresman, 1977, p. 262.
_____. This Star Shall Abide. Atheneum, 1972.
Reviews: Booklist 68, p. 820.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 26, p. 89.
Huck, C., S. Hepler, & J. Hickman. Children's Literature, 1976, p. 388.
The Kirkus Review 40, p. 335.
Norton, D. E. 1991. Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children's Literature. 3rd ed. Merrill/Macmillan, p. 340, 349.
_____. "Why Write for Teenagers?" Horn Book. June, 1972, pp. 249-254.
Silvey, Anita, ed. Children's Books and Their Creators: An Invitation to the Feast of Twentieth-century Children's Literature. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Something about the Authors: Facts and Pictures about Authors and Illustrators, Volume 4. Anne Commire, ed. Gale Research, 1973.
Carol Littlejohn is a young adult and children's librarian who is currently completing her Doctorate of Letters in Information Science at Rand Africaans University in Johannesburg, South Africa.