Una McCormack is the author of five science fiction novels, including The Never Ending Sacrifice and The Way Through the Woods. She has taught organizational theory at the University of Cambridge, and is currently lecturer in creative writing at Anglia Ruskin University. Below Una discusses Sylvia Engdahl's The Far Side of Evil.
Una McCormack on The Far Side of Evil by Sylvia Engdahl
Between 1970 and 1981, the American science fiction writer Sylvia Engdahl wrote six young adult novels. The most well-known of these is the Newbery Honor Medal book Enchantress from the Stars (London: Gollancz, 1974). The protagonist, anthropologist-in-training Elana, citizen of a peaceful star-faring Federation, stows away on a field mission to observe a pre-industrial world at risk of colonization from a technologically advanced Empire. Forbidden by their Oath to disclose their true nature, members of the mission must intervene more subtly: Elana poses as an enchantress in order to guide a woodcutter's son through a quest to save his people from the invaders. The book, which switches skilfully between first- and third-person narrative in a way that would normally send a writing teacher reaching for her red pen, seamlessly blends fantastical and science fictional narrative modes and meditates thoughtfully on the ethics of intervention and the nature of belief.
The sequel, The Far Side of Evil (London: Gollancz, 1975), again addresses many of these themes, but against a darker setting. Elana is sent to Toris, a world not unlike ours in the 1950s, where two superpowers – the Libertarians and the Neo-Statists – are on the brink of nuclear war. This time the mission is unequivocally observation without disclosure: intervention might well light the powder keg. However, Elana's colleague Randil, who has fallen in love with a Torisian, Kari, decides he must break the Oath and intervene. Posing as a visitor from a nearby planet, he offers the Torisians access to a landing craft from the survey ship in the hope of stimulating interest in space travel. When it becomes clear that the Neo-Statists intend to use this gift to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Libertarians, Elana resolves to destroy the landing craft.
Key to Engdahl's purpose in this book is the working out of her own ideas of the 'Critical Stage', the name she gives to that point in history when a species has the technological capacity to destroy itself – but also, therefore, the means to embark upon the exploration of space. Engdahl's theory is that a civilization that chooses the latter absorbs its creative and competitive energies into space travel rather than war, and passes through the stage intact. Toris, with no moons to provide a focus for romantic yearnings for the black, seems a likely candidate for annihilation, and Engdahl poignantly captures the hopelessness of life beneath the Bomb, and the corrosive effect of loss of faith in the possibility of progress (remember, this is a young adult book):
"Let civilization go its way; it'll fall of its own weight in time."
"What'll replace it? What about human progress?"
The boy laughed. "There's no such thing."
"You mean history isn't going anywhere even if we don't have a nuclear war?"
"It's never gone anywhere yet," the long-haired girl answered cynically, "except from bad to worse."
Though I had known many Torisians felt that way, it was still a shock to hear it stated so flatly. The idea of civilization itself being worthless was worse than the prevalent fear of its being wiped out by the Bomb. It was horrible. It was more horrible than all the horrors of their history that these people were without hope (pp. 94-5).
The novel unflinchingly depicts totalitarian rule. The chief action takes place in the city of Cerne, recently occupied by the Neo-Statists. Books disappear from the university. Doors are knocked upon in the middle of the night and one of Elana's colleagues is arrested as part of a purge of ethnic minorities. Rather than risk disclosure, he allows himself to be executed. Most remarkably for a young adult novel, the book (which opens with Elana in prison after her attempted sabotage fails, and proceeds via flashback to bring the reader up to her arrest) deals frankly with torture. Elana is drugged, kept in a permanently lit cell, briefly blinded and, in the book's most harrowing sequence, subjected to sensory deprivation. None of this is gratuitous. Engdahl lays bare the logic of the torturer. Elana's interrogator is a man who 'has built his whole life around the philosophy that force always wins, and when in the end I disprove it, he will be cast adrift' (p. 182).
The Far Side of Evil (also available as an e-book) is an earnest book. The characters debate means and ends; they discuss the nature of fate and chance and destiny. There are no jokes, only the careful working through of the author's main themes and ideas. It is gripping. I must have read this book when I was about ten. Its effect on me has been incalculable. From reading it I was equipped with the intellectual apparatus to wonder: whether societies pass through stages; what are the dynamics of power; whether ends ever justify means; how pills might function like talismans. (In prison, Elana remembers her previous mission and gives Kari placebos made from bread crumbs, telling her that they will help with the pain. Kari's faith in medical science, boosted by Elana's support, means the placebo works.) When, in the late 90s, I discovered the author's website and wrote to her, she expressed dismay at how young I was when I read this book. But I was ready for what it had to teach me. It would be ludicrous to say that it turned me into a sociologist (Ursula Le Guin did that), but it laid important foundations. And it kept me looking at the stars.
In her afterword to the revised edition of The Far Side of Evil (NY: Walker and Company, 2003), Engdahl notes that the brief period of time that was integral to her original conception of the Critical Stage is now out-of-date: 'It didn't occur to me that a planetary civilization, having once developed a capability for space travel, might cut back its thrust into space as ours has done' (p. 321). The new edition emphasizes the ongoing colonization of space that is needed for a species to emerge from the Critical Stage. In the new edition, the stage has become 'critical' in another sense – the consumption of resources caused by overpopulation means that there is a small window of opportunity available for a species to enter space before the necessary raw materials are depleted. Since the 1970s, when the book was written and the space programme was gearing up for the shuttle, human creative energies (and planetary resources) have been diverted from this purpose. The human imagination seems to have become preoccupied with the production of new toys that proliferate and administer information - what the anthropologist David Graeber, in a recent lecture called 'bureaucratic technologies', rather than the 'poetic technologies' that took us to the moon. And yet this week the Dragon capsule reached the International Space Station. I find myself hopeful. Perhaps we are still reaching. We may yet reach the stars.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]