Friday, October 5, 2012

Book Review: 'Heritage of the Star' by Sylvia Engdahl

3 / 5 Stars

‘Heritage of the Star’ (January 1976, Puffin, 250 pp., cover artist uncredited) was originally published in 1972 in the US under the title ‘This Star Shall Abide’.

‘Heritage’ is one of three volumes in the ‘Children of the Stars’ series, the others being ‘Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains’, and ‘The Doors of the Universe’, all originally published in the early 70s, and all intended for the Young Adult readership.

The trilogy has just this year been re-released in a 600+ page omnibus edition, titled, appropriately enough, ‘Children of the Stars’.

‘Heritage’ is set on an unnamed desert planet that is marginally superior, as a dwelling-place, to Tatooine. The people live hard-working, somewhat threadbare lives centered on an agrarian society operating at a medieval level of technology. The exception to this state of affairs is the walled City, where more advanced technology is centered, and where live members of the Technicians and Scholars castes.

The Technicians travel via landspeeders to the surrounding countryside to apply fertilizer to crops, render drinking water potable, and attend to the ill and injured, among other sundry duties. The Technicians do not share their technological bounty with the populace; metal is scarce, machines rare, and things like books are rarely seen outside the City walls.

The Scholars are remote and mysterious, more like priests than academics. They never venture beyond the courtyard of the front gates of the City, but spend their time inculcating the populace in a belief system revolving around a holy Prophecy, which foretells the advent of a wondrous new era of technological advances and bountiful living, when the ‘Mother Star’ appears in the sky – this at some undetermined point in the future.

Noren is a thoughtful young man living in a village in the hinterland. As the novel opens, his coming of age ceremony is underway, but Noren is dissatisfied with the prospect of marrying his school sweetheart, begetting children, and living out his days as a farmer.

Noren is troubled, even resentful, of the way that the Technicians and Scholars enjoy advanced technology, flitting about the landscape in their speeders even as the Lumpen Proletariat sweatily toil in the fields. Why should the Technicians be allowed the use of machines, when such things better could be used to abolish the drudgery of life in the villages ? Why should books – and by extension Knowledge - be kept within the City, and not distributed to the People ?

Noren even entertains heretical notions: he questions the validity of the Prophecy, and the creed of the Mother Star. Expressing such thoughts aloud can get one killed. But as Noren’s resentment of his lot in life grows, he decides to confront the ruling castes.

By so doing, Noren embarks on a fateful journey that will render him a prisoner of the Scholars, and a witness to the underlying truth of the society that governs life on his planet. The revelations will be cruel and unrelenting – but Noren is adamant that he will not turn back…..

‘Heritage’ belongs to the sub-genre of sf in which a young person risks life and limb to question the inflexible orthodoxy of his or her society – only to find their presuppositions replaced, in a wrenching fashion, by a carefully hidden reality.

Leigh Brackett’s classic novel ‘The Long Tomorrow’ comes most readily to mind as an example of this sub-genre. However, while Leigh Brackett was willing and able to use episodes of overt violence and confrontation to propel her narrative, in ‘Heritage’, author Engdahl takes too deliberate and restrained a tone, and her novel suffers in comparison.

Thus, while the opening chapters of ‘Heritage’ are certainly engaging, the middle portion of the novel tends to lose momentum, as author Engdahl belabors the philosophical exchanges between a defiant Noren and his captors. The climax of the novel – an episode of self-abnegation – is underwhelming, and leaves little room for anything other than a predictable conclusion.

Summing up, ‘Heritage’ is a well-written YA sf novel, and those who are content with a measured, contemplative tone will enjoy reading it.

But I strongly suspect that modern-era YA readers, accustomed to the strong, action-based content of novels such as those in the ‘Hunger Games’ series, will find ‘Heritage’ too sedate to be very rewarding.


Anonymous said...

You should submit this to Ian at Sf Mistressworks. A review site for sci-fi books pre-2000 by women...

Cool review.

Anonymous said...

I fell embarrassed to admit it, but I liked the cover of this book.
By the way, nice review. I came across it whilst trying to find any commentary by you about Leigh Brackett's novels.