More Cold Equations: Sylvia Engdahl’s Heritage of the Star

I first read Heritage of the Star when I was ten years old. (The US title was This Star Shall Abide and it’s currently available directly from the author in an omnibus edition as Children of the Star.) I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever read, and I still think it’s one of the best SF books for ten-year-olds ever written.

It’s the story of Noren, a boy who is growing up in a stultifying medieval society hung about with prophecies but where Technicians quicken the soil and Scholars bless the crops. Noren aches to learn the truth about his world and make knowledge free to all. After a heresy trial, he eventually does. The planet is a colony world, the original world has been destroyed, and in order for humanity to survive in the harsh conditions, society has to be structured that way. He recants his heresy and becomes a Scholar himself.

This is the entire plot, and you may now throw things at me for spoiling it—but an adult reader is going to have it all figured out by the second chapter anyway, and if I were reading it for plot twists, I’d hardly still be re-reading it. What makes it a great book, or anyway a great children’s book, is the process of revelation, and Noren’s devotion to a higher Truth. You as a reader go through the same voyage of discovery that Noren does, and follow right along with his conclusions. Because you too love truth and knowledge more than comfort, or at least you hope you do, you go right along with it. Noren is a wholly admirable character, and indeed, this is a book entirely without villains. This is Man versus Nature in pure form.

What makes it a very peculiar book to re-read as an adult is the way in which it is increasingly clear how much the author has stacked the deck to make it come out that way.

The whole thing works only if you can accept that setting up a weird caste system for the intelligent to rebel against was the only way to save humanity. The planet is metal-poor, and what reachable surface metal there was has been mined and removed by aliens. The soil and native plants and water contain poisons. The original planet has been destroyed in a nova, and if the people on the colony planet knew this, they’d despair and suicide. The only hope is to live at a low tech level without metal but to continue to preserve enough technology to purify soil and water, and to work on developing transmutation. Transmutation only can give metal, metal only can give civilization. People living at a primitive level are unlikely to be doing much scientific research, or even preserving enough complex tech to survive. They therefore set up the caste system in which the people who question the received wisdom, because they long to learn more, become the researchers.

Like Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” it has the kind of stated logic which discourages questioning of axioms, which is odd in a story about the necessity of questioning received wisdom. I’m not talking about the plausibility of metal-poor planets, or (as Engdahl does in the sequels) the issue of why they didn’t use genetic engineering to make people immune to the poisons. It’s just that the whole thing has to be balanced on that exact knife-edge so that the caste system  and fake religion has to be the only possible answer… and that really is very peculiar.

Both titles, US and UK, come from the Prophecy that looks so fake and turns out to be exactly specifically and scientifically true. “We shall preserve the heritage of the star” and “the spirit of this star shall abide in our hearts.” The nova will eventually show in their sky, and that is the deadline for developing transmutation. The heritage they’re preserving is the tech that keeps them alive and the ongoing research project, and the spirit is that of the essential equality of people and the importance of truth. Yet it’s being preserved by a rigid caste society where questioning the rules is essential, even though the rules turn out to be utterly necessary.

It’s a contradictory message when you think about it, but it’s a book that does encourage that most essential element of science fiction: thinking about it.

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