Enchantress to the Stars first appeared in 1970, won a Newbury Honor in 1971, and is today still considered to be a shining jewel in the crown of juve...moreEnchantress to the Stars first appeared in 1970, won a Newbury Honor in 1971, and is today still considered to be a shining jewel in the crown of juvenile science fiction--so it's odd that I'd never heard of this book until just last year. Me, a child of the late-seventies/early-eighties who devoured any book in our public library with a blue spaceship sticker on the spine. Me, an author in the field of speculative fiction for children, who continues to read as many genre books as time will allow. Me, who apparently still has a whole lot of classic literature left to discover.
Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic. EftS is a graphic example of this principle in action. To the medieval natives on Planet Andrecia, spacesuited scouts from the expanding interstellar Empire are demons and their groundmoving equipment is a dragon to be slain. But to the science-minded Imperials, the New Age psychic abilities of the Federationites (Federationalists? Federationians?) are equally beyond their understanding. In fact, the mere disclosure of the Federation's existence would permanently impair the development of the entire Empire, which means that the benevolent and highly ethical Federation agents are obliged to die rather than divulge their secrets.
This makes their society the ultimate high-tech conspiracy theory!
Engdahl uses three points of view to present the intersection of three planetary cultures--a clever device marred slightly by the framing explanation that one character, Elana of the Federation, is enhancing her own narrative with imagined accounts of the events from two other points of view in a book-length missive to a younger relative. As a reader I constantly found myself jarred out of the story with questions like: How does she know that? Why would she think that? And is this something she'd really be telling to someone other than the judges at her upcoming mission inquest?
But if the frame is ignored--perhaps with the use of "Start reading here" and "Stop reading here" tape flags--the three intertwining story strands represent the best traditions of epic fantasy, space cowboy heroics, and sentimental coming-of-age romance. Okay, so maybe I'm not the world's biggest fan of coming-of-age romance, but even I can appreciate a well-done interplanetary love triangle gone wrong. In this case, it goes something like this…
INTERIOR - STONE HUT FURNISHED IN SPARSE MEDIEVAL STYLE
Elana and Georyn stand gazing deeply into each other's eyes.
ELANA: Oh, Georyn!
GEORYN: Oh, Lady of the Enchanted Realms, I have placed you upon such a pedestal in my mind that no mere mortal of flesh and bone, such as myself, could ever dare to deem himself worthy of your notice, let alone your interest, and each word you speak thrills me with a million unspoken desires, such that I can hardly maintain any semblance of control--however I know that I must because it would be improper to even think such thoughts in your pristine presence and if you were to but suspect me of such blasphemy there would surely be no reason for you to continue the charade of pretending to care for me at all.
ELANA (giggles): Oh, Georyn!
EVREK (peering in through a window): How strange that Elana seems to enjoy spending so much time with that Youngling. I might be jealous if not for the security of being Elana's fiancee and having a psychic bond that allows us to share our deepest thoughts and emotions on a level that immature cultures could never imagine.
ELANA (with a deep sigh): Oh, Georyn!
EftS was first published soon after the original "Star Trek" series went off the air, at the height of the Space Race, just as mankind was still putting its first bootprints on the Moon. The book reflects the optimism and sense of wonder of its time, when it seemed inevitable that humans would march forward across the Solar System and out into the Galaxy. In the fashion of 50's and 60's sci-fi, the universe of EftS is crammed with inhabitable worlds with each planet inexplicably featuring Earthlike plants, Earthlike animals, and people who look and act just like us but maybe a tiny bit different. It made me wonder if, perhaps, some hidden force even above the Federation were seeding the planets with humanoid life, which of course there was and it's called an author.
Otherwise, the story has stood the test of time and continues to provide ethical thought-food on the natural course of societal development, the power of belief, and the value of allowing aboriginal cultures to find their own paths. It's also notable that the most intelligent and intuitive character in the story by far is a member of the least developed society, and that the Andrecians and Imperials are both on their way to someday becoming the equals of the Federation, whose only advantage over the others is that "they got there first."
Bottom line: Readers 9 and up will appreciate the blending of familiar fantasy and science fiction tropes, and might widen their own worlds in the process. Older readers who have somehow missed this book should make an effort to go back and look for it.(less)
I read this 1977 Newbery Honor Book shortly after Enchantress from the Stars and found myself wondering why the Newbery Committees hate mothers so muc...moreI read this 1977 Newbery Honor Book shortly after Enchantress from the Stars and found myself wondering why the Newbery Committees hate mothers so much. Surely anybody's who's looked into the "dead mother book" phenomenon can attest to the fact that the mothers of Newbery book protagonists have an amazingly short life expectancy and a high tendency to die even before the first chapter starts. Likewise the stars of most Disney animated films and every fairytale character with an evil stepmother. My current pet theory is that a motherless main characters tend to be instantly sympathetic, are forced to be more self-reliant, and don't have as much of a support network to fall back on when things go bad--which kicks the story up a notch but still, it's a tough sacrifice on the part of all those fictional mothers.
In ASitH, Jen Morgan is not only motherless, but recently so, and members of her family are still coping with Mom's loss. At the same time, Jen's father probably isn't making things any better by moving the family from Massachusetts to the Welsh countryside, away from their friends and familiar surroundings, and then distancing himself from the children by burying himself in his work. When Jen's younger brother, Peter, starts spacing out and talking about a magical Sixth Century harp key, Jen has to believe it's an act in order to earn a ticket back home. This is the promising premise to a fantasy novel that mostly fails to deliver.
Slogging through this travelogue of a book, I learned much about the climate, culture, history, and ornithology of Wales--yes, there are frequent bird-watching expeditions. Family drama frequently weaves in and out, Jen learns how to cook and clean house, and every once in a while the fantasy elements reassert themselves.
Bang! A magical artifact is found! Zam! Strange things begin to happen! Kapow! Our modern world is bumping up against Wales of the past! We can expect an exciting collision of worlds any time now... any time now... any time now... Or not. The end?!!
ASitH is the rare time travel story in which characters from the present and characters from the past move around the timeline but never actually interact. If this book were a movie, I'd demand a refund. But since it's a book, I'll just do another Book Review Theather!
INTERIOR - DRAFTY OLD WELSH HOUSE DURING A BAD STORM AT NIGHT, CIRCA 1976
Professor David Morgan stands in the doorway, looking out at the bog.
DAVID: Say, it's sure a bad storm. What do you suppose all those people are doing out on the bog?
JEN: Probably looking for a lost cow.
DAVID: With torches and swords?
JEN: Those cows can be deadly if they sneak up on you. It certainly has nothing to do with magical time-altering harp keys.
Jen looks over at her brother Peter, who is staring intently into the glowing metal harp key he has taken to wearing around his neck.
DAVID (peers harder into the gloom): Maybe it's a festival, like a Welsh version of Guy Fawkes Day or the Fourth of July.
A Sixth Century Welsh warrior stumbles toward the house, wearing armor, bleeding profusely from a battleaxe stuck into his back.
WARRIOR (pleadingly): [Something we can't understand because it's in Welsh.:]
DAVID: How exciting! Their festival incorporates costumes and trick-or-treating like Halloween! Jen, run and fetch us some chocolate bars!
In this case, Book Review Theater is only a slight exaggeration. During the book, an entire Sixth Century battlefield is magically transported to the Twentieth Century complete with hundreds of corpses and rivers of blood and people barely take notice. Sure, television has made us jaded about violence, but come on!
Bottom Line: If you're looking for a fun time travel story that perhaps features a living, breathing mother, this is not the book for you. But I would recommend it to anyone who needs to write a report on Wales in the 1970s, keeping in mind that things have surely changed a lot in the past three-plus decades. "Torchwood", a BBC series I particularly like, is set in modern 21st Century Wales and you'd hardly know it's the same place!(less)
I know several readers, myself included, who were blown away by Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. They then found the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, to...moreI know several readers, myself included, who were blown away by Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. They then found the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, to be equally as riveting and eagerly reached for Xenocide, book three in the series, with the highest of expectations--only to be slammed with disappointment. This otherwise serviceable book, with an original premise and interesting characters, crashes to an unsatisfying and confusing ending that combines the worst attributes of deus ex machina and sequel hooking. Back in the mid-90s, it seemed that only the most devoted of Ender fans dared to approach the fourth book, Children of the Mind. The rest of us avoided it like the descolada virus itself.
This situation may have changed over the ensuing decade as Card has published a number of prequel and sequel books in the Ender universe including a notable series about the life and times of Ender Wiggin's schoolmate, Bean. As the story world has expanded, characters have been fleshed out, political systems have been better defined, and the original quadrology has been reframed into a new context. Xenocide-burned readers may finally be ready to take tentative steps toward CotM--or at least that's my theory, after receiving an endorsement of the book from a friend who described it as "not as bad as everyone thought it would have to be."
So I read the book and it was, indeed, not as bad as everyone thought it would have to be--but it's no Ender's Game, either.
It helps to know that Xenocide and CotM were originally conceived as a single volume, which was divided in half when the page count climbed higher than the publisher was willing to accommodate. CotM's confusing and disjointed opening takes place only moments after Xenocide's confusing and disjointed ending, and neither book feels complete on its own. I'm sure the author did the best he could but the result still reads like a botched operation to separate conjoined twins.
CoTM starts in the middle of the action with no easy recap for those of us who haven't read the previous book in a while, so a better transition would have been appreciated. Perhaps something like I've done in this episode of Book Review Theater...
EXTERIOR - EXTRASOLAR PLANET WITH THREE MOONS IN AN ORANGE SKY, WHERE PEOPLE STROLL ALONG A BOARDWALK THAT SEPARATES A BEACH ON ONE SIDE FROM URBAN BLIGHT ON THE OTHER - LATE EVENING
A cardboard box appears from nowhere. Peter Wiggin and Si Wang-mu emerge, look around in confusion for a moment, and confront the first man passing by.
PETER: Excuse me, sir?
MAN: Yeah? Whatta you want?
PETER: I'm an extra-universally created simulation of Peter Wiggin, the late Hegemon of the Free People of Earth, under the spiritual control of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin who is and will remain, until his imminent death of old age, reviled and celebrated, respectively, as Xenocide and Speaker for the Dead.
WANG-MU: And I am Wang-mu, a former slave with artificially-enhanced intellectual capacity, ironically named after a Chinese goddess. Also ironically, the so-called free people of my society were in fact enslaved to outside powers by virtue of their genetically-crafted OCD tendencies while peasants and slaves like myself remained actually free.
PETER: With the aid of Jane, a unique artificial intelligence originally created by an alien race that's falsely presumed to be extinct at the hands of my apparent younger brother and puppetmaster, we are travelling from Wang-Mu's home world--
WANG-MU: The Planet Where Everyone Is Chinese.
PETER: Right. From Wang-Mu's home world, The Planet Where Everyone is Chinese, we were meant to find The Planet Where Everyone Is A Pacific Islander by way of The Planet Where Everyone is Japanese.
WANG-MU (looks around): With my advanced intellect, I've determined that this is not any of those worlds.
MAN: Nah. This is The Planet Where Everyone Is From New Jersey. Got a problem with that?
PETER: Not at all, my hairy knuckle-dragging friend. It would seem that Jane is playing a practical joke on us, or perhaps manipulating our journey in the same way that everyone around us seems to be constantly manipulating everyone else in some way or other.
WANG-MU: Including ourselves.
PETER: I'm sorry for taking up your time, but we really must be going. A fleet is approaching The Planet Where Everyone is Brazilian with the intention of blowing the whole thing up, not knowing yet that a cure to the dreaded species-scrambling descolada virus has been found, or that their actions would mean genocide for the last remaining Buggers as well as the native Piggies and Jane herself--who is unique enough to be considered her own species. Did I mention that Jane has the ability to pop people in and out of the universe, allowing them to create impossible objects, bring people back from the dead, and cure brain damage or deformities of the body?
WANG-MU: Which is why we must prevent Congress from shutting Jane down by persuading some influential philosophers that the events of World War II back on Earth are still relevant in space so many thousands of years later.
Peter and Wang-mu step back into the cardboard box, which promptly vanishes.
MAN: What a couple of self-important jerks!
Something like that would have helped a lot, although the premise does seem rather silly and far-fetched when you try to boil it down to a few short paragraphs of exposition. It also reveals a major weakness of the story world: the assumption that Earth would colonize new worlds on a nation-by-nation basis and that the resulting planetary cultures would not change or evolve noticeably from their progenitors. This detail seems glaringly unrealistic in light of Card's obsession with such anthropological details as food, architecture, and language.
Ender himself hardly appears in this book, and perhaps the most memorable character from Xenocide, OCD-laden genius Han Qing-jao, is missing entirely--only represented in CotM by tantalizing excerpts from her philosophical writings, which serve as thematic chapter headers. But Qing-jao's presence would perhaps have been redundant since she is far from the series's only deep-thinking philosopher and author of impactful works that have changed the lives of billions or trillions of people. In addition to Quing-jao, this would include Ender (author of a trilogy that has stayed continuously in print for over three thousand years), Valentine and Peter (who manipulated world governments through their pseudonymous writings as Demosthenes and Locke), Aimaina Hikari (whose works inspired attempted xenocide), Grace (whose writings inspired Hikari), Malu (whose works inspired Grace), and Plikt (who, as the speaker for Ender's death, has a lock on a future bestseller as well).
Only Ender's stepdaughter, Quara, seems to lack the bug for philosophizing and authorship, so of course the other characters use her as a punching bag for their verbal abuse--which highlights another annoyance I experienced with this book. Every scene is either a dramafest of angst and confrontation or an excuse for long philosophical soliloquies that usually include at least one Shakespeare quotation. Or often, both. Almost without exception, every philosophical theory presented in the book is then subsequently picked apart and discarded as childish and simplistic compared to the unexpressed deeper thoughts that all of our genius characters are keeping to themselves. This makes for one long, emotionally draining, and often pompous book.
Bottom Line: Every reader of thought-provoking science fiction, age 10 through 110, should pick up copies of Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. My prior warning to avoid Xenocide is tempered somewhat, but anyone who continues onward in the series should read Xenocide and Children of the Mind together and be prepared for an exhausting and confusing ride.(less)
**spoiler alert** Randomly surfing channels last weekend, I came across a classic "Three's Company" episode in which Mrs. Roper takes a cafeteria job...more**spoiler alert** Randomly surfing channels last weekend, I came across a classic "Three's Company" episode in which Mrs. Roper takes a cafeteria job because she's fed up by the miserly allowance her husband gives her to maintain the household. This episode from 1979 remained in my head as I read Trapped in the 70's by D.L. Garfinkle, which is set in 1978.
In the novel, Mr. and Mrs. Grey are a typical California couple having marital difficulties to which their children, 17-year-old Tyler and 15-year-old Heather, remain willfully blind. Mr. Grey has become absorbed in his work and isolated from his family, while Mrs. Grey is unfulfilled to the point where she cries herself to sleep at night. A crisis point is reached when Mrs. Grey takes a job at, yes, a cafeteria, just like Mrs. Roper. But instead of being prodded to her act of rebellion by a pair of spunky 20-something tenants named Janet and Chrissy, Mrs. Grey finds her encouragement from Shay Saunders, a time-traveling teen from the early 21st Century.
The story of women's lib and marital strife is really just a subplot of Trapped in the 70's, with the main story being a boy-meets-girl drama in which the boy is a 1978 native while the girl is an unwilling visitor from 2006 who appears one night, naked and unconscious in the family bathtub--which, come to think of it, is similar to how Jack Tripper ended up living with Janet and Chrissy in "Three's Company." The narrative of the book shifts back and forth between Tyler and Shay, with margin tags and alternate fonts to help readers tell which protagonist is speaking.
As a disclaimer, Debra Garfinkle is a friend, so I am greatly biased in favor of her book. I'm likewise biased in favor of books about time travel, and ones in which beautiful naked girls suddenly appear in random bathtubs on page one.
1. Star Wars was still in the theater at this time of this book, mostly because teens like Tyler and his friend Evie kept going back for multiple viewings. Younger kids like me did as well--I was seven and probably went to at least a dozen showings. Evie especially is obsessed with the character-themed collectibles. I understand trademark sensitivities when writing a book like Stuck in the 70's, but in real life Tyler would have relentlessly pumped Shay for every tiny detail about the next five movies. Also in the real world, Shay would have called up George Lucas and warned him not to create Jar-Jar Binks.
2. Strange that Tyler doesn't mention (or doesn't realize) that Shay didn't come from the future entirely by herself. She also brought with her a bathtubful of 2006 water. If only somebody had thought to save a sample, it could have been analyzed against water that hadn't travelled back 28 years in time. Perhaps it would have been different on a subatomic level, or would have shown quantum entanglement with the 1978 version of its molecules. Great mysteries of the universe might have been solved by even a tiny drop.
3. It was interesting that Tyler's and Shay's school, which each of them attended in their respective eras, did not seem to have changed much in 28 years while the local mall underwent a major transformation. Shay instantly masters the politics of popularity in the 1978 cafeteria, but she is nearly crippled by the lack of a Starbucks, Victoria's Secret, or frozen yogurt stand. I've had a similar experience. The mall my family shopped at when I was a kid has since expanded from two anchor stores to four, added a food court, tacked on a second level, and most recently popped out an entire new wing of upscale trendy shops and restaurants. Meanwhile my old high school, essentially unchanged since it first opened in 1973, is now considered inadequate and obsolete. A new $200 million school is currently under construction to replace it.
4. From the setup--modern teen travels back in time by, more or less, a single human generation within the town of his or her own birth--I expected Stuck in the 70's to be more in the mold of Back to the Future. One of the things I took for granted was that Shay would run into her mother as a teenager, or the parents of friends from her own time. She does run into her future housekeeper but that's really not a substitute for Marty McFly trying to set his future father up with his future mother.
I also expected that there would be a "closing of the circle" that time-travel stories are known for. One way or another, Shay is going back to 2006--either by some sort of time machine or by living through those 28 years and aging accordingly. She could even die before 2006 and still "close the circle" by sending a message to her mother on the day after her disappearance. I maintained the expectation of a closed circle until the very last page because I couldn't help thinking of this book as primarily a time-travel story, but it's not. The essence of the book, when the setup and setting are boiled away, is all about identity and percpetion.
Mrs. Grey is only one of several characters in the book who, through the chain of events begun by Shay's slip through time, come to realize that they are not being true to their inner selves. Mrs. Grey develops a life outside the home, Mr. Grey starts to appreciate his family more, Shay develops some much needed self-esteem, Evie learns to express herself, and Tyler gets a new haircut and bitchin' surfer duds.
This is what separates novels like Stuck in the 70's from sitcoms like "Three's Company," in which characters are not allowed to learn and grow from their experiences. At the end of the episode I described above, Mrs. Roper simply quits her job and Mr. Roper gives her a raise in her allowance--enough so that she'll now be able to buy the maple syrup he likes when she does the weekly shopping. The episode ends with the status quo restored, which is the golden rule of 70s sitcoms.
Would I, as a teen in the mid-1980s, have picked Stuck in the 70's off the shelf to read? Actually, I can avoid answering that because this book, as a time-travel story with teen protagonists that also includes underage drinking, sex, and drug use, would not have existed in the mid-1980s. But if a copy had somehow fallen through a temporal wormhole from 2007 and landed on my desk in 1986, I think I would have been disappointed by not seeing that circle closed at the end. Which is why I'm proposing an alternate ending as my latest episode of Book Review Theater!
Exterior, night, outside Jake Robbins's house in 2006. Three adults in their mid-forties sneak up the front walkway and hide in the bushes. They are TYLER, EVIE, and SHAY.
TYLER (nodding at an illuminated window above): So you're up there?
TYLER: Right now?
TYLER: Having sex with...Jack?
SHAY: Jake. And it's not me, you know that. It's my seventeen-year-old former self from the future.
EVIE: Except the future is now the present.
TYLER: I should go in there and break that up.
SHAY (grabs his arm): Don't you dare!
EVIE: We can't afford to mess this up, Tyler. We only get one shot and the entire space-time continuum depends on making things happen the way they're destined to.
SHAY: But I do appreciate your overprotective nature...Dad.
TYLER (blushes): I only had that one-night stand with your mother in 1987 because the paternity test said I had to, or else Shay wouldn't exist. You know Evie's my one true love.
EVIE: Thanks, babe. Hey, here comes Mariel!
MARIEL steps up the walkway and glances into the bushes. Shay flashes her a thumbs-up signal. Mariel nods and begins pressing the doorbell over and over again. A crude dragonfly tatoo can be seen on her wrist.
SHAY (winces): I told her not to get that tatoo.
EVIE: She had to, so things could happen exactly the way you remember. That's why Mariel had to take a job as your family's housekeeper and pretend to only speak broken English. I bet that's been almost as hard for her as it's been for me to get any work done without my best lab assistant.
TYLER: But you did get the time machine done, right?
EVIE: You bet! Funded by the enormous fortune we've amassed using Shay's knowledge of stock results and sports scores for the past 28 years, and using my obsessive investigations into quantum mechanics and the secret files Tyler obtained as Albert Einstein's official biographer, I've wired up Jake's Jacuzzi to a working flux capacitor...in theory.
SHAY AND TYLER: In theory?!!
EVIE: I had no chance for a test run. 1.21 gigawatts of electricity doesn't grow on trees.
TYLER (as Mariel is finally let into the house by a towel-wearing Jake Robbins): She's in. Now we just listen and wait for the signal.
SHAY (listening to a portable radio receiver): She's reaming teen-me out in Spanish. That really takes me back. I don't know how Mariel ever put up with-- Oh, there's the code word!
EVIE presses a button on a remote control device. The street lights dim, then come back up. The trio anxiously watch the window above them.
MARIEL's voice from Shay's receiver: What you do with her? Where she go? Where you hide her?
JAKE's voice from Shay's receiver: I don't know! I didn't do nothing! Please don't call the cops--I don't want to go to jail!
TYLER, SHAY, and EVIE break down laughing.
SHAY: Mariel's getting her revenge. Poor Jake--I almost feel sorry for him.
TYLER: I'll give her another ten minutes, then Jake's getting a visit from Shay's father.
EVIE: Go get him, babe!
Caption across the screen: AND WITH THAT THE CIRCLE WAS CLOSED, THE END.