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[A] surprising, haunting, poetic book . . . (Commonweal)
On completion of her training as an agent of the interstellar federation’s Anthropological Service, Elana is sent to a world whose people may soon destroy their civilization. Since not enough is understood about the situation to justify any interference with their evolution, the Service has no power to act; its agents must go as helpless observers, posing as natives, in the hope of gaining knowledge that may help to save other worlds. This passive role proves intolerable to the young, inexperienced agent assigned...
On completion of her training as an agent of the interstellar federation’s Anthropological Service, Elana is sent to a world whose people may soon destroy their civilization. Since not enough is understood about the situation to justify any interference with their evolution, the Service has no power to act; its agents must go as helpless observers, posing as natives, in the hope of gaining knowledge that may help to save other worlds. This passive role proves intolerable to the young, inexperienced agent assigned to the same city as Elana, a city under totalitarian rule. After falling in love with a local girl who has become Elana's closest friend, he identifies too completely with the natives and unwittingly endangers the entire world by a well-meant but ill-advised attempt to intervene. Forced to assume responsibility for undoing the damage, Elana finds that only she--at great cost--can prevent an immediate war of annihilation.
Although this novel has the same heroine as the author’s Newbery Honor book Enchantress from the Stars, it is completely independent and is intended for older readers, high school age and adults.
From the reviews of The Far Side of Evil
"A surprising, haunting, poetic book . . . full of provocative philosophical and psychological questions as well as tense adventure and romance." --Commonweal
"An intriguing, provocative story relevant to situations in today's world." --Booklist
"Gripping psychological science fiction . . . the relationship between the heroine and her sophisticated, unbrutish interrogator is beautifully balanced and adds another dimension to a story which is already multi-faceted." --Times Literary Supplement, London
"The author has a direct, forceful style of writing that sparks the reader’s imagination." --Publisher’s Weekly
"Fiction doesn't have to be profound, just entertaining. But every once in a long while, a novel comes along that is both. . . . [It] speak[s] to the very place of humanity in the universe, and what we need to do to attain and claim it. In an age in which terrorism has threatened our ways of life in unexpected ways, Engdahl's probing story, and the recommendation it contains, are especially relevant." --Paul Levinson
"This is a thoughtful and engrossing novel." --Chicago Daily News
"Contains good characterizations and some thoughtful concepts about our own world, set in a skillfully written SF plot." --School Library Journal
"Engdahl's faith in the importance of space exploration and the questions she poses about the nature of 'progress' and the dangers of well-intentioned intervention will amply reward the careful reader." --Terri Schmitz, Horn Book
There is no use pretending that I am not scared. I am in prison, and I do not think that I shall get out. Oh, I'm not guilty of the charges against me; I'm not at all what my captors think I am. They know nothing of my real identity beyond my first name, Elana, and the fact that I seem surprisingly young to be involved in a sabotage plot. They would be even more surprised if they knew the truth.
It is very funny, really. They think that I'm a foreign agent, and I am. Only I'm the agent not of their political enemies but of a civilization far in advance of theirs, an interstellar federation. I am not a native of this planet.
If they knew that I wasn't born here on Toris, they would probably be more certain than ever that I have hostile intentions; and that is ironic. After all, we of the Federation visit the worlds of Younglings-peoples who are not yet fully mature-simply to study them; and as an agent of the Anthropological Service, I am bound by the Oath to hold those peoples' best interests above all other considerations. Furthermore, I am a prisoner not for having harmed anyone but because I'm trying to prevent a horrible disaster that is threatening this world as the result of our presence. What I'm doing may not work, and if it doesn't-well, if it doesn't, a whole Youngling civilization may be wiped out. And if it were not for the surveillance camera that is hidden in the ventilator, I'm sure I would break down and sob, for I have never felt so alone. I cannot reach any other agent, even telepathically; they are all too far from me. There is no one to help, and the responsibility is all mine.
My cell is a cubicle no wider than it is high, absolutely bare of anything but the rigid bunk and the heavily barred slot of a window above it. (There is another bunk, but it's folded back against the wall, for I am in solitary confinement; I see no one except when I am taken out for questioning.) The metal door is solid and has an electrically controlled panel, through which my food is passed-when I'm given food, that is, which isn't often. In the center of the ceiling is a huge naked bulb that burns day and night without respite. It doesn't have the intended effect on me any more than my interrogator's harsh spotlights do, since the sun of my home solar system is brighter than this one's and my eyes are relatively insensitive to glare. To see the stars, however, I must cup my hands around my face and press close to the window. Out there, out beyond this isolated and sorely troubled planet, lies a universe of countless worlds: fascinating worlds with their own civilizations, their own heartlifting beauties, their own sorts of terrors, griefs, and joys. I may never visit them again. But they are there, and somehow knowing that gives me courage. Life is not all evil and ugliness, even here on the planet Toris! Though the men who have imprisoned me are a rather sorry lot, they are not really representative of their race, which is, like all Youngling races, a promising one. And as I stand here looking out at those glittering stars, I can't help wishing that the Torisian people knew of the universe that is waiting to be explored. It's harmful to Younglings, of course, to find out that there are human beings more advanced than themselves; I am sworn to keep that secret even at the cost of my life. So I cannot tell them how things are. But what would I say to them, if I were free to speak? I would tell them that they are a good people, better than they know. They have a big future ahead of them, a future among the stars, which I shall not jeopardize by revealing anything to my captors. At least we of the Service hope they have a future. The disaster I am trying to prevent is not their only peril; they face a larger danger, and from that we are powerless to save them. Our science has discovered much that they have not yet dreamed of; still, we don't have enough knowledge. That is why we have come. If-well, if things go badly for them (and they look bad now), we hope at least to learn something that will help to save other worlds.
But our work here may be all for nothing-worse, it may backfire. If I fail to fool my captors, if they guess that I am not the saboteur I'm pretending to be, then the Torisians will be in trouble for which we are to blame. That's a chilling prospect. I can't stop shivering, and it's not merely because this cell is kept so miserably cold.
They have been trying to make me answer their questions by a method that, from my study of the ways of Younglings, I judge to be the traditional one. (There was a time, before I was fully trained, when such barbarism would have shocked me; I am older and wiser now.) Their failure to obtain any information is a matter not of heroics on my part but of defenses they don't know I have. I did tell them that much, because I just couldn't resist the temptation and I knew that they would not believe me. "You can't force me to cooperate," I warned. "The human mind can't be forced. You can't even hurt me if I decide not to be hurt." My interrogator laughed and declared that I would shortly learn otherwise. But he is ignorant; the human mind has all sorts of powers that he would scoff at. I'm aided by those powers: telepathy and psychokinesis, plus some other skills that are very useful when it comes to dealing with pain. What has been done to me so far has been a bit scary, but it has not posed any serious problem.
However, I think that fairly soon I shall swallow my pride and start putting on a good act for them. If they were to discover that I really am impervious to their present techniques, they might experiment further, and I am not at all eager to have that happen. Up till now they have shown restraint because they want to keep me in good shape for a public trial. But if they should abandon that idea, well, there are things they could try that I would find disconcerting, to say the least. I have some impressive powers, but I'm not free to use them all. I am sworn; I cannot use any form of self-protection that would reveal that I am alien.
I try not to think about that. I try not to look ahead at all, for the thing that frightens me most is the likelihood that if my ruse succeeds I will be stuck in this prison for years and years, for the rest of my life, maybe. I know that I shall not tell them anything; I know that they will not kill me until I do, except perhaps by accident. Even if they do threaten to kill me, death is something I have faced before. I am experienced in such matters, and I know that facing it is a kind of terror I can handle. But to be locked up here forever on a Youngling planet, when I have been trained for the stars ... Of course, it may not come to that. This planet may be doomed in any case by the natural laws I was sent to learn about.
There is a small chance that my own people will eventually be able to help me. They will try. Only they cannot do it if it means harming any Younglings, either through violence-which is contrary to our principles-or through disclosure. So I may be in for a long ordeal, and if I am to withstand it, I must find something to occupy these dismal hours between interrogations. I shall record the whole story of this ill-fated mission, I think. The only way open to me is through a rather difficult mental discipline, one in which I was recently trained; it's a real challenge. (You "store" the words in your subconscious mind so that you can "read" them back later, quickly, without thinking them through-a little like memorizing long passages under hypnosis, except that you have full control over what you're doing.) I need that kind of a challenge! I need it to keep my mind off other things. Things like the fact that I may never again see my home or the man I'm to marry ... that disaster may hit Toris at any moment and that if it does, it may be partly my fault ... that my interrogators may come up with some ghastly new tactic tomorrow ...
And I have another need. The current game they are playing is having its effect on me. Confession, they tell me, is the best route to peace of mind; and that is less ridiculous than most of their assertions, though I'm certainly not about to buy peace of mind for myself at the cost of harm to this world. They have an unbelievably far-fetched statement written out for me to sign; they have shown it to me a number of times, and my laughter has been not forced but genuine, because the list of my alleged "crimes against humanity" is hilarious in the light of my true mission. But each time, back in my cell, that laughter has turned to silent tears. While their ideas about the human mind are primitive, they are right, I suppose, in their conviction that everybody feels guilty about something. In my case it is true, anyway.
I tried, not long ago, to do a very dreadful thing. My attempt did not succeed, but if it had I would have a terrible load on my conscience; I would deserve whatever punishment fell my way. Yet if by some miracle it becomes possible, I shall try the thing again, for if it is not done, the people of Toris will have little chance to survive.
* For me, the mission began one sunny afternoon in a top-floor office of Anthropological Service Headquarters, on the planet where I was born. (Its star is unnamed on Torisian charts and is very distant.) It was the day of my graduation from the Academy, and I was frantic, for I had received no word about what my assignment was to be. My name hadn't appeared on any of the rosters that had been posted. Only that morning, however, I had had a call from the secretary for the Executive Staff. I was to see the Personnel Director. Not my adviser or some other Academy official, but the Director himself.
My case was, to be sure, somewhat extraordinary. Unlike my classmates, who were to take the Oath that evening, I already wore the Emblem; I had been sworn several years before, during a mission to the Youngling planet Andrecia. It's rare for a student to be invested prior to graduation, but rarer (and illegal) for anyone but a sworn agent to visit a non-Federation world. Since I'm the daughter of a Service family and had gotten myself involved in a mission commanded by my own father, I had been allowed to commit myself sooner than usual.
The Oath is an extremely serious business; you give your life to the Service, totally and without reservation, renouncing your allegiance to your native world. The conditions aren't made easy; they're designed to discourage people who might take lightly our position with regard to Younglings, for it's vital to the Younglings' welfare that we refrain from exerting any sort of influence on their civilizations. Your job as a field agent is to study them and sometimes to protect them, but not to play God. It's a fascinating job, one worth sacrifices. Only it's an awesome responsibility, and you go through a great deal to qualify.
It's not enough for you to be intelligent, and proficient in controlling your psychic powers, and willing to work hard. It's not even enough for you to be willing to die rather than bring harm to the Younglings, though that is necessary and not a mere figure of speech. You must also have a special sort of empathy: an ability not only to understand the Youngling viewpoint but to feel it. What's more, you must be able to face things that aren't pleasant, things that the ordinary Federation citizen never sees. War, poverty, disease, filth and violence and hatred-these are facts of life on Youngling worlds. As an agent, you encounter horrors that are unimaginable by the standards you grew up with. And although you are not permitted to take any action with respect to them, neither are you meant to become insensitive. There are some people who could harden themselves, who could see such things and not mind; but if you are that kind of person, you just aren't chosen.
It's a career that doesn't attract many recruits. It means giving up all but occasional use of our natural psychic abilities, forgoing the more impressive ones-those that set our species apart from the Younglings-entirely. To some, that would be like wearing chains to live among the paralyzed. And after all, we of the Federation have plenty of other challenges open to us, things concerned with developing still greater powers of the mind that our science has just begun to investigate; our lives need never be dull.
Yet the Service is what I have wanted all my life, and even learning the truth about it, as I did on Andrecia, didn't dampen my enthusiasm for long. If there are dark things to be seen, well, there are wonderful things, too; on the whole the exploration of the universe is incomparably thrilling. Which is fortunate, because the Oath is irrevocable, and I would hate to be stuck in a desk job at Headquarters.
On graduation day, I entered the Director's office glad to be through with my studies and desperately eager to hear where I was to be sent. My fianci, Evrek, who had been two classes ahead of me, was away on an expedition. Besides, before we could marry, we both had solo trials to complete; so we would have to wait a while longer to work as a team in any case. Meanwhile I was more than ready to get back on a starship, preferably one bound for uncharted regions.
Though I hadn't met the Director before, I wasn't nervous about the interview and I found him easy to talk to. All the men and women who hold top positions in the Service seem to have that odd combination of strength and warmth that is so characteristic of my father: the ability to inspire trust. Besides, Service people are a close-knit fellowship-much closer than outsiders would imagine, considering that we come from all over the galaxy and have widely diverse backgrounds-and we have no formal rank. We're bound to obey the orders of those over us, such as instructors, the Executive Staff, a starship commander, or the Senior Agent on a field mission; but these people aren't surrounded by protocol, and socially we're all peers.
The Director sat not at his desk but near the windows, and I was offered a comfortable seat facing him. "What do you hear from your father?" he asked, passing me a steaming cup from the hot-drink dispenser beside his chair.
"Not too much," I said. "He's still away, commanding a survey mission."
"I know. I'd give a good deal if he weren't, because I need him; right now I need all the top-level people I can pull in." He sighed, then continued, "However, we're here to discuss your own assignment."
Excerpted from The Far Side of Evil by Sylvia Engdahl Copyright © 2005 by Sylvia Engdahl. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 3, 2009
The first book in the series "Enchantress From The Stars," that introduces the heroine as a young girl that is throw into challenging siutations and moral choices. Highly recomended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 10, 2003
I loved Enchantress from the Stars; I bought it after I had read the library's copy, so I could always have it in reach. I'm disappointed in this sequel; it spends too many pages reiterating because the plot is thin. There is some interesting political philosophy embedded in here.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 31, 2013
No text was provided for this review.