Girl in a Cell

The Far Side of Evil — Sylvia Louise Engdahl
Elana, book 2

Far-side-of-evil

Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s 1971 The Far Side of Evil is a sequel to 1970’s Enchantress from the Stars . It is set in the same Anthropology Service Universe as Engdahl’s Star trilogy: This Star Shall Abide (1972), Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains (1973), and The Doors of the Universe  (1981).

The Academy Director was afraid that Elana would find her first post-graduation assignment an anticlimax after the events of Enchantress from the Stars . Their fears could not have been more misplaced. For Elana, there’s nothing anticlimactic about waiting in a tiny cell for an interrogator determined to break her.


Every human world eventually arrives at the Critical Stage. Some worlds choose to expand into space and survive. Others opt for nuclear war and extinction. All of the member races of the Federation are ones that survived their Critical Stage, a survivor bias that denies the Federation concrete data on the factors that lead some worlds to choose doom over survival. All the non-member worlds of which the Federation is aware are Youngling worlds, their Critical Stages still to come.

Toris, divided between Libertarian and Neo-Statist powers, is fast approaching its crisis. It offers the Federation an unparalleled chance to watch the process play out. As the Director warns Elena, it is unlikely that her work as a covert observer on Toris will revolutionize the Anthropology Service’s models. Incremental progress is still progress. Elana’s work, and the work of all the Anthropology Service agents on Toris, will have value.

Posing as an amnesiac mugging victim, Elena is dropped into Statist-occupied Cerne. It’s not hard for her to find an inconspicuous niche, one that lets her observe a Youngling Cold War from the inside. She gets to watch the Torisians struggle with the choices that will make the difference between survival or the death of all life on Toris.

Fellow Service operative Randil takes participant-observation a step further. Elana befriends Torisians; Randil falls in love with one, Elena’s roommate Kari. Whereas the prospect of nuclear war is tragic for Elena, it is unbearable for Randil; his beloved Kari would surely perish with her world.

What makes the situation even more unbearable for Randil is his growing suspicion that the Anthropology Service is not on Toris merely to observe. What if the Service plans ensure they get their precious data on failed worlds by making sure that Toris makes the wrong choice?

Randil thinks he knows how to save Toris. Randil is terribly wrong. Elana and Kari will pay the price.

 ~oOo~


Criticizing this novel is like pointing out to someone all the ways in which their puppy fails to meet expectations. It’s very enthusiastic and sincere; large parts of it are silly. But like a puppy, it can be all those things and still be endearing.

The Space is Destiny! elements are very heavy-handed and very silly. The author seems to believe that cultures that stay on one planet suffer inevitable Malthusian doom, combined with resource depletion. ZPG cannot work because

because the biological imperative toward growth is stronger than human laws. And even if it could, that would lead to stagnation. No civilization can remain at a standstill; it must always be changing, moving on.

Rather conveniently, the same urges that lead to war on the surface of a planet find other outlets in space, so space colonies offer not just survival, but peace as well. Of course, a little math shows it takes a surprisingly short time with even moderate growth rates for population increase to swamp the galaxy. If the book’s assumptions are correct, the Federation has its own Crisis Stage waiting for it, once all the empty worlds are full.

This book’s roots go back to the 1950s. This is apparent not just in the geopolitical situation that inspired the author, but also the atmosphere of vaguely Christian religiosity that suffuses the story. The Federation worlds may have many religions, but they’re religions whose forms would be familiar to mid-century Americans.

As is also quite 1950s, the Federation takes a condescending, paternalistic view of the Youngling worlds. Backward races, developing countries, yada yada. However, the author does see the flaws in this approach; the very character who most exemplifies such views comes to realize their error.

He had been mistaken about more than the Critical Stage. His gravest and most basic error had been in his judgment of people, not only the dictator and his kind, but the very people he cared about. He had misjudged Varned; he had misjudged Elana; and, he realized painfully, he had misjudged Kari, for whom he cared most of all. He had done worse than misjudge her. He had placed himself above her, diminished her, as he had diminished her race by taking on a role of protector and guardian that was not his to assume. In supposing that she would value her life above the future of her world, he had been guilty of the same patronizing approach toward Younglings as in his determination to control the destiny of the Torisians.

Rereading this after a lapse of fourteen years I see that I remembered some things (naive optimism about space travel, characters with awesome psi powers) and forgot how much of the book is about a teenage girl withstanding the harshest interrogation techniques a brutal State can bring to bear on her. Granted, Elana has superpowers, but she is obligated by oath to deliberately suppress her powers to keep the Torisians from learning about them, even if this means her death. This isn’t a theoretical possibility; Varned, another agent, allows the State to execute him rather than break his oath.

This was a pleasant change of pace from my recent reading. How odd to encounter a book whose essential assumptions are optimistic, even if the characters find themselves in a terrible situation. I was reminded of Lloyd Biggle’s Interplanetary Relations Bureau novels. I think anyone who likes one of these authors would like the other.

Kindle offers a very affordably-priced edition of The Far Side of Evil. I would suggest that people not do what I did—twice!—and read this without reading the first book in the series, Enchantress from the Stars .


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