Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Finding the Last Book

Covers of This Star Shall Abide, Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains and The Doors of the Universe
I began reading science fiction in sixth grade. A few years later, I picked up a book called This Star Shall Abide (1972), by Sylvia Louise Engdahl. I think I probably took it out of the library because it had a science fiction sticker on the spine, and because it had a cover illustration by Richard Cuffari. (Yes, I have a habit of judging books by their covers.)

I also read the book's sequel, Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains (1974). Basically, they are the story of a lost colony from a civilization whose sun went nova. By the time the story takes place, it is many generations later and the main character, Noren, is confronting the rigidity of his society, and a caste system that keeps the rural farmers working with stone age tools, while technicians come and go in air cars, and a distant City is home to mysterious people called the Scholars.

Noren doesn't believe in any of his society's religious tenets, which are based on a prophecy that foretells a bright star's appearance in the sky. On that day, the prophecy says, everyone will be equal, with access to machines and knowledge, "and Cities will rise beyond the Tomorrow Mountains." (The bright star of the prophecy is actually the light from their parent solar system's nova -- because they traveled on faster-than-light ships, the light will have taken much longer to reach the colony than their ships did.)

Noren becomes a heretic and is taken into the City, where he is interrogated by the Scholars. In classic science fiction fashion, it turns out that there's a lot more to the prophecy of the star, and there's a reason for the caste system. But the Scholars want people to become heretics and reject it all, because they know the system is wrong, even if it's necessary.

I found that idea tremendously appealing as a teenager: the concept that all the wrongs in the world were actually a test to see if we were heretical enough to reject them, and thus prove we were worthy of acceptance into something greater. Yes, I grew up in the 1970s (I was 14 during the Watergate hearings), so it may have been natural to wish there was a silver lining in all of that.

Anyway. I read and reread these two books during high school (being an inveterate re-reader). But I always felt as though they were incomplete. The second book ends with Noren realizing he really does have faith in the prophecy... an outcome against which I may have been naturally predisposed.

Then, just a few years ago, I stumbled across the third book -- The Doors of the Universe, published in 1981. It does a great job of completing the story of Noren and his planet, answering all the questions in a very satisfying way. I was so psyched to find it, and opening it was like starting up a conversation with an old friend after 20 years.

It's corny to thank authors for their writing, I suppose, but since finding Doors I've been extra thankful to Sylvia Engdahl for completing the trilogy. Sometimes I feel like she did it just for me, even though I know better.

P.S. Unfortunately, Richard Cuffari had died in 1978 at the young age of 53, so the last book is not lucky enough to have one of his cover illustrations. I really must write something about his work in another post.

1 comment:

Ms Sparrow said...

Back in the 70's I was mining the public library for every science fiction book on the shelves. They never acquired these books. Thanks for the info.