Enchantress from the Stars

1

Sylvia Engdahl, Enchantress from the Stars, Bloomsbury, 1 June 2018, 368pp., $14.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781681196138

Originally written in 1970 and now reissued in 2018 as a paperback, I am one of the new readers bewildered by only just discovering Engdahl and her incredible capacity for stories of future worlds.  Enchantress from the Stars has already gathered a beloved cult following and is now building a new fan base.

As a fan of classic sci-fi, having read my way through the likes of Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin, before moving into fantasy for many years, Enchantress from the Stars has made me fall in love with science-fiction all over again. Although perhaps already hinted at in the critical acclaim and awards cited on the cover, Engdahl’s writing and how she expresses the inner thoughts of her characters is compelling from the outset.  In the prologue I could already sense a clear potential to hook those who believe that science-fiction isn’t a genre they enjoy.

Enchantress from the Stars explores the complex speculative future of intelligent alien life through a future of planet colonisation.  It is told through the experiences of Elana, a young adult who stows aboard a starship with the Anthropological Service, known as The Federation.  The mission of the Service is to protect inter-planetary civilisations from invading and destroying each other.

The events of the book are based on the planet of Andrecia.  Beneath the light of extraterrestrial skies and the sun setting over alien meadows and forests, recognisably human, yet extra-terrestrial species are in different states of technological and scientific development.  Interactions between species are carefully managed and protected by the Service.  Elana must quickly confront the wretchedness of learning the craft and power of her role as a Service field-agent, sometimes learning too little, too late.

When Elana meets Georyn, a Youngling, from the seemingly less advanced native Andrecian civilisation, she faces moral and personal dilemmas beyond her wildest capacity to imagine. Both Elana and Georyn are strained to the deepest core of their own beliefs and understanding. Passages of the story are also told through Georyn, who perceives himself as a limited and unlikely hero, as he is thrust reluctantly into an epic dragon-slaying quest. A third perspective is seen through the eyes of the invading “advanced” Imperial civilisation, bent on colonising Andrecia and researching its medieval inhabitants as scientific curiosities.

The tender unpredictability of the heart casts spells in the exchanges between the characters.  The relationship between Elana and her father plays out across challenges forcing them to balance parental love, professional mentoring and pure survival, all bound by a higher duty.   Within the complex relationships, are some of the most emotionally stirring scenes in science-fiction I have ever read.  Elana, with her inner strength, vulnerability and fallibility is a stand-out female character in this genre.

Despite being written 48 years ago during the height of the space race era, the story is as relevant and timeless as ever. It feels so modern! There are unanswerable ethical questions about our past, present and future relationships relevant to our current scientific explorations of other planets.

Rich with anthropological themes including superstition and belief, scientific knowledge, psychology, the ethics of persuasion, this is not a story easily constrained within the pages.

Enchantress from the Stars is a candidate for ongoing discussion and study, whether through a book club, student-led or teacher-led discussion, particularly for readers new to science-fiction.

Engdahl has created an FAQ to explain some of the questions that have surfaced and has written an essay on her own reactions to some controversial interpretations of the story as allegory.

This is a story that will travel with you into your future. A touchstone to conjure powerful thoughts when you next look up the at the stars in our own skies. Engdahl has created something for emerging philosophers, wonderers and deep thinkers of all ages, particularly young adults. Like light bending and shaping as it travels through infinite space, how you interpret your own transformation through Elana’s journey, is determined by your own understanding of the cosmos.

Reviewed by Angela Brown