Another category for the 2015 Reading Challenge is *a book set in the future*, for which I chose a book that has long been sitting on my shelf: Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars (1970), a Newbery Honor Book. My edition, from 2001, includes a Foreword by Lois Lowry, who points to Engdahl’s “lush literary landscape” that “enables a reader to enter several worlds and make a home in each.”
Lowry is right, but the irony of the statement is that the main character, Elana, an interstellar anthropologist-in-training, cannot ever be at home in any of the worlds she visits. The complexities of this novel are a challenge to put into a few words, but I’ll try.
Three cultures (two of whom have mastered space travel) come into contact on one planet, in a region that looks much like medieval Europe. The most advanced culture (the Federation) must save the planet (Andrecia) from being taken over by the invaders (the Empire), but in a way so subtle that neither the Andrecians nor the Empire need to change their understanding of the universe.
Engdahl mixes genres (medieval quest, coming-of-age, space opera), letting us into the minds of the various characters and forcing us to see events from more than one angle. However, this is not a case of cultural relativity — Engdahl is clear about which viewpoint is the most enlightened (the peaceful one) — but she underscores the values inherent in each viewpoint.
One theme of this novel is the role of magic (or the discounting of this role) in a culture’s understanding of how the universe operates. The Andrecians believe in magic: for them, the Empire’s excavator is a dragon that eats rocks when it has no humans to devour; for them, Elana is an enchantress able to teach the magic of making objects float through the air. The Empire does not: there’s no such thing as mind reading or telekinesis. The Federation also does not, but understands, like Hamlet, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy. (Engdahl even paraphrases Hamlet in something Elana says.)
At one point Elana says to a Federation soldier, “To see so much, by methods you think are scientific, that you’ve no faith in there being anything you don’t see — it must be awful.” And, later, Elana tells an Andrecian, “We are both captives still, captives of our worlds’ boundaries, for enchantments are not unworldly things, but only ways of seeing what is already there.” The Andrecians have this power, which the Empire and, perhaps, even the Federation have lost. We pay a high price for scientific advancement.
And yet this is a hopeful tale — the dystopian Empire will one day evolve enough to join the utopian Federation. Andrecia will travel the same path (Engdahl’s determinism may be too harshly limiting), and the Federation’s goal is to keep the path clear for all planets on this journey. Elana learns much about the demands placed on her as an anthropologist — she cannot provide medicine or food to the hungry and ill Andrecians she meets. But she also learns what the Federation can accomplish, while we learn that there may be hope for our own messed up world — we’re still adolescents, but moving inexorably towards adulthood and eventual wisdom. I wish there were a way to speed up the process.