Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stewards of the Flame, by Sylvia Engdahl

Stewards of the Flame
by, Sylvia Engdahl
2007, BookSurge Publishing
460 pages
ISBN: 978-1419675065

Fleet Captain Jesse Saunders wakes up in a hospital without any memory of how or why he is there. So begins Sylvia Engdahl’s science fiction novel, Stewards of the Flame, centered on a small colony world where everyone is wealthy and healthy…or else. Jesse quickly learns that the medical community on this planet is the only authority, acting as both judge and jury in the lives of everyone. Crimes and illness are considered one in the same and they are very aggressively diagnosed and treated with mind-altering drugs. Even death is illegal. Bodies are kept alive in stasis forever by a society that believes the body is the essence of existence. However, not everyone agrees, and Jesse’s new friends – Peter and Carla – have dedicated themselves to creating a much different kind of life for their covert dissident group. When his new companions manage to engineer his ‘legal’ escape, Jesse is confronted with a life both frightening and intriguing – a life where the human mind’s potential is revealed and relationships he has never experienced become possible. However, the future is uncertain, as discovery of any one member of the group could mean a certain end for them all.

The book begins well, building tension and providing plenty of twist and turns as Jesse tries to understand what is going on around him and who he can trust. When he becomes free of the Meds – Jesse begins to learn about the powers of his mind and the abilities of the people he has quickly come to trust, even while he recognizes that they are keeping something from him. This is where this clipper of a story – which had been zipping right along – suddenly lost all its wind and parked in the doldrums. The nature of the story required a certain amount of setup along the way, but the dialog felt like I was reading a transcript of a graduate school parapsychology class – for 300 hundred pages! It became a long-winded, back-and-forth conversation that laid out everything you could have ever wanted to know about what the mind may or may not be capable of. If there was anything left for the reader to figure out themselves, I don’t know what it could have been. In the meantime, the plot languished. Even as the action picked up in the final scenes of the story, it still took a backseat to the ongoing moral and theoretical conversations of the characters.

However, the story is not all bad. Engdahl’s writing is simple and engaging. The characters are well developed and the romance between Jesse and Carla feels real and is quite well done. Also, the question of when medical decision-making should belong to the patient or to the state makes for an interesting and timely debate. Unfortunately, the story itself offers little tension and the ending is predictable long before the last page.

If you have a keen interest in parapsychology and medical ethics, you may find this an interesting addition to the discussion. But if you are looking for an engaging story from beginning to end, you will probably be disappointed.

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