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Afterword to the 2003 Edition of The Far Side of Evil

by Sylvia Engdahl

The Far Side of Evil was first published in 1971, during the era of the Apollo moon landings. At that time, I believed Earth would soon be safely out of the Critical Stage. It didnít occur to me that a planetary civilization, having once developed a capability for space travel, might cut back its thrust into space as ours has done. And so in this edition I have altered some of the wording to make plain that it is the ongoing colonization of space, not merely the invention of spaceships, that is needed to ensure the survival of a "human" species (ours, or any other that may exist elsewhere).

People I've talked to have frequently been surprised to learn how seriously I myself take the ideas I expressed in this novel; they've assumed its premise was a mere plot device. In fact, the vital importance of expanding Earth's civilization into space has been my deepest conviction for nearly fifty years. My opinions on this subject are discussed at my Web site, www.sylviaengdahl.com, and I hope readers who want more information about them will look for it there.

I should explain that this story is meant to be taken more literally than Enchantress from the Stars, which was purposely based on mythology: not only the mythology of its fairy-tale portions but that of "space opera" science fiction in which interplanetary explorers are traditionally portrayed as invaders with ray guns. I don't believe a real spacefaring civilization would behave as the Empire in Enchantress does, any more than real medieval woodcutters went around killing dragons. It's obvious that even now--and certainly in the future when we have starships--our culture as a whole wouldn't approve of colonizing inhabited planets. In saying that colonization is essential to human survival, I certainly don't wish to imply that it involves stealing worlds that belong to indigenous populations.

For this and other reasons, I regret having connected The Far Side of Evil specifically to Enchantress from the Stars, which is often enjoyed by younger readers than those for whom Far Side is intended. Though about the same Service, it is, after all, completely separate from Elana's earlier adventure and could easily have had a different heroine. It might then have been no surprise to those acquainted with her that this is a darker story, set on a planet in no way like a fairy-tale world.

Readers of the 1971 edition have sometimes assumed that if the book were being written today, it would not have a "Cold War" setting. But its setting never reflected current affairs; the planet of the story is like Earth as it was in the fifties, not the seventies. I wrote an initial draft of part of it, without Elana's involvement, in 1956, a year before the launch of Sputnik--an event that to my great joy made it impossible for the world portrayed to be our own. So the fact that we no longer have two superpowers on the verge of nuclear war in no way dates the story. Apart from the obvious premise that dictatorship is a bad thing and totalitarian rulers are motivated by desire for power, it is not about world conflicts, or about politics in any sense. (I used the term Libertarians on the basis of the word's generic meaning before becoming aware of the U.S. party by that name.) Some readers thought I used space fiction as a vehicle for political commentary when in fact it was the other way around: I used political melodrama to dramatize my ideas about the evolutionary importance of space.

Nevertheless, the story as originally written was dated in another way. It assumed that what the Service terms the Critical Stage (the stage during which a species has the technology to destroy its world yet is still confined to a single planet) is a relatively brief period, limited to the era in which the planet does have two superpowers on the verge of nuclear war. It didn't acknowledge that the prolongation of it leads to other threats, such as terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, biological warfare, environmental degradation, and ultimately depletion of the resources needed to get sufficient "lead time" on extraterrestrial colonies before it's too late.

Thus in addition to my intentional simplification of a complex theory for a teenage audience, some of my assertions turned out to be oversimplified in terms of what we now know after thirty years of neglecting the space program. Insofar as minor revisions can remedy this, I have made them. What's said in this edition is, in my opinion, true. But there is a good deal more that should be said about why a species able to travel beyond its home world fails to do so, and what its fate is likely to be if it continues to cling solely to that world.

I suspect that the Service knows these things, and that Elana herself might know them later in her life.

Copyright 2003 by Sylvia Louise Engdahl
All rights reserved.

New in 2017 - Update on the Critical Stage: The Far Side of Evil’s Relevance Today. Why the novel isn't outdated in the twenty-first century -- an essay conaining a more detailed discussion of some of the issues above and in the FAQ, plus comments on how long our Critical Stage can be expected to last.

The Far Side of Evil description and purchase information