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Children of the Star by Sylvia Engdahl
(Meisha Merlin, $20.00, 721 pages, paperback; first published 1972, 1973, 1981; this edition January 2000.)

This volume contains the three novels This Star Shall Abide (1972), Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains (1973) cover scanand The Doors of the Universe (1981).

Many generations ago, the home star of the human species that had evolved on the Six Worlds went nova, vaporizing the six inhabited planets of that solar system and almost completely extinguishing that human species. (Excuse the cumbersome language. Engdahl makes plain that this human culture is not ours -- it has evolved separately.) Largely because of antiscientism, the species was unprepared for this disaster. A small colony had been established on a planet of another solar system, but only fragilely so: there are elements within the ecosystem that are antipathetic to human life, while in the far past the world has been stripped of its few metals by an alien species. Shortly before the nova a scientific party was sent to bolster this colony and to preserve the human species however they could, despite the hostility of the colonized planet.

En route, the leader of the scientific party concluded that the sole way of ensuring the species survived was to preserve the technology the party was bringing with it by whatever means were necessary: otherwise, within a few decades the means of survival would be squandered. In order to do this he decided to set up something abhorrent to him and to his fellows: a caste system, with the designated Scholars at the top of the tree, under them being the Technicians (who have enough knowledge to maintain the technology) and then the Villagers, who must lead a primitive existence, surviving solely through the technological assistance of the Scholars and Technicians. Sometime later the First Scholar and his followers established a fake religion in order to keep this artificial structure in place -- specifically, to give the Villagers what Karl Marx called the Opium of the People in order to dissuade them from rebelling.

As noted, the scientific party found the caste system abhorrent: the Six Worlds culture had believed for centuries that knowledge should be freely available to all, and that no one was the born superior of anyone else. To get around this problem, the First Scholar decreed that the ranks of the Scholars should be replenished not through heredity but by recruiting new members from among those Villagers and Technicians who not only rebelled against the system and the religion, but had the courage to court torture and death in publicly doing so. In other words, the only people who can become Scholars are those who detest the notion of a privileged class, and desire not privilege but truth. With that as their guidance, they are fit to become part of the scientific research programme of the Scholars, which is to discover some way of synthesizing metals so they can build starships in order to search out a more viable homeworld.

That this dream of synthesizing metals is a false one becomes clear in the time of Noren, a village lad who cannot tolerate the foundations upon which this society is based. Convicted of being a heretic, he is passed to the City where the Scholars dwell; he anticipates that he will suffer torture and worse, yet feels that this is a small price to pay for the retention of his honesty. To his astonishment, he discovers that the words of the Prophecy of the Star, the keystone of the religious underpinning of it all, are literally true -- albeit misleading -- and, more important, are seemingly essential if this human species is to survive. He therefore goes through the ordeal of a public recantation of his heresy, thereby graduating to become a Scholar.

And he is regarded as the most promising new scientist for many a long year: if anyone can solve the problem of synthesizing metals, he will be the one. Except that he soon proves to his own satisfaction that the task is impossible, and so must investigate other possibilities...

The first few pages of this omnibus contain review quotes from the time of the three novels' original publication. This is fairly standard practice; what is less standard is that not all of the reviews are entirely favourable. The Association of Children's Librarians, for example, had this to say about The Doors of the Universe:

This is a very sophisticated and technical book ... The subject is definitely popular, but the average child in eighth or ninth grade will not be able to comprehend the theme. This book will do better as an adult novel.

Of the trilogy as a whole Children's Book Review said:

They will not, unfortunately, be popular [with young people] because the intellectual level and reading difficulty will restrict their circulation to the more intelligent high school students.

The two reviewers were right and they were wrong. Where they were wrong was in grossly underestimating the ability and willingness of young readers to tackle "difficult" themes in their fiction reading: most of them are absolutely bursting for such stuff, rather than the usual pap adults decree is suitable for their intellectual capabilities. (How many people have you met who regard a juvenile encounter with Arthur C. Clarke's "difficult" novel Childhood's End as having been the formative influence that determined their lifelong passion for the literature of the imagination?)

Where the reviewers were right is that these three novels are indeed in many ways tough reading, whatever the age of the reader. Engdahl's concern here is to present us with a succession of primarily moral but also philosophical problems, none of which have easy answers. The action of the novels is therefore secondary to the ethical wranglings through which Noren, his devoutly religious lover Talyra and the Scholars' Chief Inquisitor Stefred must journey. As in Isaac Asimov's original Foundation trilogy -- to which this trilogy, in an odd way, earns comparison, for both good and ill -- much of the "adventure" comes through the play of intellectual ideas rather than through physical thrills and spills. To say the books are very talky would be accurate, although not necessarily a criticism.

But it's an important factor nevertheless in one's enjoyment of the omnibus. For quite a long time while reading it I was thinking how superb it was to have the three novels available back to back, so that one could experience the full impact of Engdahl's vision rather than having it in diluted form through reading the novels separately and perhaps years apart. After a while, however, this view changed: I now wish I had indeed read the books separately, because there are so many moral dilemmas being raised here that eventually the brain begins to suffer overload. A very good thing of course! -- who would complain about being intellectually overstimulated when so much sf and fantasy currently being published is so very lowest-common-denominator?

So one ends up both heartily recommending this book and at the same time doing so with reservations. You will almost certainly come away enriched from Children of the Star, but at the same time you'll probably find the experience in some ways to have been a gruelling one -- this is not an easy read, in any sense of that term. Which is perhaps another way of saying that it's an extremely good book.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 28 July 2001