The flame of hope – Sylvia Engdahl’s “Defender of the Flame”

Description by the author / blurb:

Starship pilot Terry Radnor is puzzled and outraged when he is suddenly recalled from interstellar exploration to the desolate training base on Titan. His spirits rise after he volunteers for a secret project offering him extraordinary physical and psychic capabilities, yet before he can complete this new training, he is transferred against his will to the cruiser Shepard for a tour of duty he expects to hate. But Shepard’s mission turns out to be unlike anything he could have imagined. Advancing rapidly in his career, Terry finds fulfillment in love and in commitment to a cause–until an ironic twist of fate tears him away from everything he has ever cared about. He is forced to build a whole new life, far from all that has previously mattered to him, and only the effort to regain what he has lost keeps him from despair. Is there any hope that he can fulfill his pledge to protect the world whose safety is crucial–more crucial than anyone else knows–to the future of humankind?
Review (a slighter shorter version can be found here)

This is sci-fi concerned about philosophical and societal questions. Sci-fi vocabulary and back-frame, rather than forming constitutive parts of the story, play the role of „tropes“, as the author explains. The sci-fi-frame, one realises, permits Engdahl to readily address the issues she is intent on sharing with the reader.

The book is not character-driven, though. It is philosophy-driven. Now it’s unfair to judge the value of a book by its philosophy, should the reader not agree to it. What can be estimated, however, is the nature and complexity of the philosophical argument. This argument starts off by a comparison between the Stoic and the Buddhist mindset, when first the idea of volitional control over unconscious body functions is treated. Instead of fighting pain, pain should be accepted and then be let go off. Another major tenet the author embraces is optimism for the development of humankind: “ … the belief that humankind is not progressing and never will. That belief seems reasonable … To see that it’s false you have to believe in the impossible … “ Terry makes a pledge to the impossible. Understandable from this optimistic perspective is the author’s belief that telepathic ability would virtually abolish crime, because the exalted empathy would preclude that people turn a blind eye to the pain they cause others. “The harmony so evident among [them] didn’t require being born to it – acquired telepathic sensitivity was enough.” From a pessimistic perspective, it can be objected that telepathy, to the contrary, would lead to a surge in crime, because then people would fully revel in the pain they inflict on others, even if they should share in that pain; the greater joy of experiencing the suffering of the other would outweigh that. It depends on whether one believes that “man is man’s wolf”(Hobbes) or whether one renounces to such pessimism. The author renounces to it, but she is balanced about her views. Fortunately she doesn’t fall prey to simplicity or naivety in the over-all presentation of her argument.

That the novel is not character-driven stems not only from its focus on philosophy but also from what I perceive as a deficiency of the story: its documentary-style.

With fourteen years, the novel covers a long period of time, but this wouldn’t preclude that the reader gets in touch with the characters, especially with Terry. Here is does, however, because the allotment of time to different circumstances appears distorted.
Often events are passed over in a rush that would have resulted in a closer connection between the reader and the characters, had the events been fully described. As it happens, the passing over of some crucial scenes creates a documentary-style that is still reinforced when, some pages later, the author wraps up weeks, months, years, by the stroke of a single phrase. This doesn’t happen as a cut between chapters, though, but right within chapters, right after events that implicated characters on a highly personal level. Like in a documentary on TV, the viewer may participate in a very momentous scene in the life of Kind SoAndSo, only to be pulled from a continuous participation in that life immediately after by the hind-sight voice of the commentator:  “Five years later, King SoAndSo finally did that and that… or died.” Now the viewer can learn a lot about the life of the King, but the won’t resonate with his life-events on an emotional plane.

For instance, in a moment of supreme peril to the characters the reader’s relationship to them can be strengthened by a somewhat larger description of how the characters react to the threat. But Engdahl shows an inclination to brush over such moments. “ … there was no way to anchor the rope; they had no choice but to leap, despite the all-too-real possibility that the ground would shake before they could land. The rope, however, proved essential in gaining access to the [ship].” Here the author has skipped the dangerous moment of the leap, though she built up tension by pointing out the particular danger related to it (the shaking ground). In the next sentence the leap has already been done with.
At another point, Terry is held hostage on a space ship. How he got enmeshed in this situation, how he is cruelly dealt with, is told with sufficient width for the reader to slip mentally and emotionally into the scene. But then, again, the scene is resolved in the crisp documentary-style. “As it turned out, no ransom was ever demanded; … Fleet patrollers we’re waiting for [the kidnapper’s ship] when it arrived.” In the same paragraph, the reader already gets to know what Terry did “four days later”.
What happens several times is that there is a ‘before’ of a longer stretch of time, then a small conversation on a particular day, then an abrupt descent into scenery action effectuated by a phrase like: “In the next instant the ground was jarred by the force of a tremendous explosion”, or: “At that moment … the car blew up”. And there is an ‘after’ of somewhat lengthy conversations to recuperate the short scenery instants, followed again by long stretches of time: “Terry spent more than a week in the hospital …” – “It took a while, but eventually …” – “So the years passed…”

Thus the perspective on time appears distorted and results as an impediment against a bonding of the reader with the characters. But still, all in all, the book profits from Engdahl’s long experience as a professional writer, assuring an engaging read. The story is thoughtful and balanced in its treatment of questions pertaining to human nature. It gives material to think about, besides providing some hours of leisure in a convincing sci-fi environment.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Link to Amazon USA (paperback, Kindle also available)
Link to Amazon Germany