The Far Side of Evil by Sylvia Engdahl
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.
From the reviews:
“A surprising, haunting, poetic book . . . full of provocative philosophical and psychological questions as well as tense adventure and romance.” —Commonweal
“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
Targeted Age Group:: YA (14 up) and adult
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 3 – PG-13
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was inspired to write this book way back in 1956 by my strong belief that expansion into space is essential to the survival of humankind and my fear that we wouldn't make any effort toward space travel. At that time we hadn't even orbited a satellite, and my draft of the short story on which I later based the novel took place on Earth. I was relieved and elated when the very next year the launch of Sputnik made it necessary to set it on an imaginary planet. I didn't write the book itself until the moon landing era and it was first published in 1971, when we seemed to be well on the road toward becoming a spacefaring species. By 2003, when it was reissued by a different publisher, I was worried again because were failing to make much progress, and I revised it to acknowledge that just inventing space travel isn't enough to put a world out of danger. But the story still takes place on a world like Earth as it was in the fifties–it's not intended to portray today's world. The ideas underlying it apply to all eras (and in my opinion, all worlds).
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The main character was the heroine of my Newbery Honor book Enchantress from the Stars, but she is older (a college graduate) in this book, which is not a sequel but a completely independent and much darker story that's not appropriate for readers under high school age. The other major character was the hero of the short draft I wrote back in 1956, before I expanded the story to involve a conflict between two agents of the advanced interstellar civilization to which they belong.
The wind is howling through the trees outside, a cold, hateful wind. By standing on the bunk I can just barely reach the window. It’s quite dark now, and the stars are brilliant, though they seem terribly far away. They, at least, are familiar and comforting, a reminder of home.
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’s 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 heart-lifting 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.
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