It's been more than twenty years since Sylvia Engdahl last published a new novel, although her older ones have popped up more recently.
But she reenters the world of contemplative sci-fi again with "Stewards of the Flame," a slow-moving but rewarding novel about the power of the human mind and spirit. It takes a long time to really get moving, but it's pretty brilliant once it revs up -- an intense journey of impressive proportions.
Jesse is a newly-promoted starship captain... until he gets drunk on the planet Undine, and is imprisoned in the vast, dictatorial Hospital. On Undine, illness is a crime, and the doctors rule everyone. Jesse is forced through alcohol and psychiatric treatment, and used as a student guinea pig.... until a young technician, Carla, smuggles him out to a gathering of her friends, known as the Group.
The Group turns out to be more than just a collection of friends -- they are rebels, who have expanded their paranormal powers, and undermine the Hospital's attempts to put the dying into eternal stasis. Soon Jesse is involved deeply in their quiet rebellion, and acquiring the same powers. But he doesn't yet know how important he is to the Group's future...
"Stewards of the Flame" isn't your typical sci-fi novel, since the future here isn't too far ahead of our own, and little of the plot is spent in space. Instead, it's about a medical dystopia, and its story overflows with psychic explorations, true love, quiet rebellion, holistic healing, and a bit of Joseph Campbell.
It sounds a little dull, and admittedly it moves at a slow pace for awhile, as Jesse learns and explores his new powers. But Engdahl weaves a deceptively simple plot into a surprisingly complex storyline, with lots of secrets and counter-conspiracies from the Hospital. And, of course, the mysterious Ian's plans for the Group.
And in the final quarter the secrets are revealed, Jesse is seemingly doomed, and Engdahl keeps throwing curveballs right to the finale. It's a pretty thrilling ride by the end, without losing the contemplative quality of the first parts.
Jesse seems to fall in with Carla and the group a bit too quickly, but otherwise is excellent as a rather cynical, embittered captain who finds out what his life could be. The other most powerful character is Peter, an enigmatic, charismatic junior leader whose plans and thoughts are kept hidden much of the time.
"Stewards of the Flame" is a solid, slow-to-fast sci-fi novel that contemplates what we could be -- and what the medical profession might become. An intriguing read.