Sylvia Engdahl’s 1970 Enchantress From the Stars is the first of the two Elana novels, also the first of five Anthropology Service novels.
The Federation is vast and powerful; it is also a good neighbor. It is not inclined to try to fix other cultures (Special Circumstances, cough cough). The Federation takes non-interference seriously enough that its very existence is a secret from less developed star-faring powers. Protecting pre-industrial worlds like Andrecia from imperialists (like the Empire) would therefore seem to be impossible.
Young Elana stows away on the Federation vessel transporting her father and his colleagues to Andrecia. It’s a bold but foolish move. Even trained Federation Anthropology Service Agents frequently die in the field and Elana is in no sense trained.
Soon after the team arrives at Andrecia, the Federation team stumbles onto a team of Empire explorers. Agent Ilura dies while distracting the Empire’s men so that the Federation vessel can flee. This leaves the Anthropology Service team missing one field agent. Elana’s father sees no choice but to recruit his daughter into the effort to save the indigenes from the imperial colonization effort.
The locals lack any context to interpret hi-tech efforts to seize their homeworld. They view recent curious events as a dragon setting up its lair. What is the dragon doing? No one knows; everyone who goes to spy on it vanishes.
The Empire is imprisoning curious locals (which is nicer than killing them, but still). It doesn’t see the locals as a serious threat, but it also does not see them as real people. Empire Medical Officer Jarel is an exception. He’s not convinced that the aboriginals are mere animals (as the Empire insists), but he is not in a position to resist the Empire’s plan: annex Andrecia and move the Andrecians to a reserve (aka open-air prison).
The Anthropology Service has a cunning plan. It will scare the Empire off Andrecia. The Federation commands vast psychic powers and the Empire does not. If the Empire team can be convinced that the indigenes have such powers they might abandon their annexation plans.
Humble woodcutter Georyn is the lucky Andrecian selected for rudimentary psychic training. If the training is successful, he may save his world. If he fails, he will die and his people will be enslaved or worse. It’s up to Elana, posing as a sorceress, to guide him on the right path.
Engdahl reportedly began working on her Anthropology Service books in the 1950s. There are many similarities between her setting and the Star Trek universe, which I am inclined to credit to independent invention (not unknown in
SF). That said, Elana’s father and his co-workers are considerably more hardcore about non-interference than Roddenberry’s Starfleet. Ilura had a personal force screen that could have shrugged off the laser that killed her — but using it would have revealed to the Empire that a more advanced civilization existed. Elana’s dad is quite aware his daughter could be killed or dragged off to an Empire zoo/science facility, but he still has her pose as an enchantress. Knowing that he cannot descend, guns blazing, to rescue her.
We never get a good look at the Federation in this book or the sequel. We see only the backward worlds in which it is meddling. The series is a bit like Banks’ Culture, in that most of the plot-enabling events occur outside its borders. What life is like within the Federation is unclear. What is clear is that the Federation condescends to other cultures, even as they try to limit the damages created by interaction. The cost? Abandoning worlds like Andrecia to imperialists. Andrecia is one of the rare cases in which the Federation saw a way to act without tipping its hand. Win some, lose most.
Engdahl does something the ST:OS folks didn’t do, for the most part. She tells much of the story from the viewpoints of Jarel and Georyn. Engdahl may be firmly on the side of the Federation, but that’s not the only point of view the readers get. Elana’s story focuses on the moral conflict between non-interference and leaving victims unprotected. Jarel’s story concerns an imperialist settler coming to doubt the rightness of his cause. Poor Georyn is the hero of a fantasy novel in which winning comes at a cost; he will find himself excluded from his own society (who will regard him with mingled awe and suspicion).
Engdahl’s prose is perfectly functional for its purpose. Each of the protagonists are endearing in their own ways. The more ruthless characters are supporting characters, which takes off some of the edge from their eagerness to sacrifice themselves and other people. The result is something of a classic, although one not as well known now as it was half a century ago. IMHO, it should be better known.