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Perspective on the Future:
The Quest of Space Age Young People

by Sylvia Engdahl

Adapted from a speech presented to the Washington State Association of School Librarians in March, 1972 and first published in School Media Quarterly, Fall 1972. Reprinted in Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature, S. Egoff, G.T. Stubbs & L.F. Ashley, eds., Oxford University Press, 1980.

Those of us who work with literature for youth have many things in common, whether we are writers, librarians, or teachers—and I believe that one of them is a very strong and basic interest in the future. I have been fascinated by ideas about the future, and particularly about space exploration, since I myself was in my teens; all my novels have been focused on it. While educators may not have such specific enthusiasm for the subject of the distant future, all are deeply concerned with preparing young people to live in the world of tomorrow. None of us can predict just what that world is going to be like, but I think there is much we can do to equip the next generation to cope with whatever tomorrow brings.

I suppose every author is asked how he or she came to choose subjects, but I think the question is raised more frequently with authors of science fiction than with others. People are always curious about why anyone would choose to write about imaginary things instead of the things we know. Each author has her own reasons, and mine are not really typical; perhaps an explanation of them will make clear why I feel that stories that deal with the future are important, and are of interest even to those for whom neither science fiction nor science itself has any special appeal.

First of all, I should mention that my books are more for a general audience than for science fiction fans. Although I think science fiction fans will enjoy them, I aim them principally toward people who normally do not read science fiction, and I avoid using esoteric terminology that only established fans can understand. Actually I am not what one would call a fan myself, at least not in the sense of keeping up with the adult science fiction genre. I use the science fiction form simply because my ideas about humankind’s place in the universe can best be expressed in the context of future or hypothetical worlds.

This is not to say that my books are wholly allegorical. I have been rather dismayed to find that some people interpret them that way, because although there is indeed a good deal of allegory in them, they also have a literal level. For instance, what is said in Enchantress from the Stars and The Far Side of Evil about how a truly mature civilization would view peoples of lesser advancement is meant to be taken literally; scientists are beginning to ask why, if civilizations more advanced than ours do exist in other solar systems, they haven’t contacted us, and that is my answer as to why.

Of course, one of my main reasons for writing science fiction is that I believe very strongly in the importance of space exploration to the survival of our species. I have held this belief since the days when all space travel was considered fantastic, and indeed I developed the theory of the “Critical Stage,” on which my book The Far Side of Evil is based, in unpublished work that I did before the first artificial satellite was launched. I am entirely serious about the choice between expansion into space and human self-destruction being a normal and inevitable stage of evolution; the fact that when I came to write the book, our establishment of a space program had made it impossible for the story’s setting to be Earth, as it was in my initial draft, was to me the most encouraging sign of our era. In the early fifties I had been afraid that the Space Age would not begin soon enough. [In the 30 years since this was published, the stalling of the space effort has shown more clearly than ever the need for fiction to inspire its progress.]

But apart from my commitment to the cause of space exploration, I think there is good reason to set stories in the future when writing for teenagers. Today’s young people identify with the future. Many of them find it a more pertinent concept than that of the past. If we are going to make any generalization about the human condition, any convincing statement that evolution is a continuous process in which the now that seems all-important to them is only a small link, we stand a better chance of communicating when we speak of the future than when we describe past ages that—however mistakenly—the young have dismissed as dead and irrelevant. Teenagers are far more serious-minded than they used to be, yet they don’t consider anything worth serious attention unless they see its relationship to problems they have experienced or can envision.

This has become more and more evident during the past few years. It so happened that I began writing in a period when young people’s involvement with matters once thought too deep for them was increasing. I was not at all sure that there would be a place for the kind of novels I wanted to write, because they were too optimistic to fit the gloomy mold of contemporary adult fiction, yet too philosophical, I thought, to be published as teen fiction. Fortunately I directed them to young people anyway, and quite a few seem to like them. I don’t think this would be the case were it not that the boys and girls now growing up are more mature in their interests than those of former generations.

It is apparent today that the young people of our time are searching desperately for something that they are not getting in the course of a standard education. They are searching in all directions: some through political activism; some through “dropping out”; some through renewed interest in religion in both traditional and novel forms, or even in the occult; and all too many through drugs or violence. Misguided though some of these attempts may be, I feel that they all reflect a genuine and growing concern on the part of our youth for a broader view of the universe than our present society offers them. Some can find meaning in the values of their elders; others cannot. There would seem to be a wide gulf between the two attitudes. There is a great deal of talk about polarization. Yet underneath, whatever their immediate and conscious goals, I believe that all young people are seeking the same thing: they are seeking a perspective on the future.

The need for such perspective is not new. It is a basic and universal human characteristic. What is different now is that the perspective inherent in the culture passed automatically from one generation to the next is no longer enough. Perspective implies a framework, a firm base from which to look ahead, and in this age of rapid change the old framework is not firm. Many of its components are still true and sound, but it has become so complex that as a whole it must necessarily invite question, if only because of the contradictions it contains. Scarcely anyone today is so naive as to suppose that all aspects of our current outlook are valid. There is much controversy, however, as to which are valid and which are not, and among free people the controversy will continue, for we live in an era when our civilization’s outlook is constantly shifting and expanding.

Whether this is occurring because—as I believe—the time of our first steps beyond our native planet is the most crucial period in human history, or whether its basic cause is something else, the fact remains that it is happening. It is a confusing time for all of us, but especially for our young people, the members of the first Space Age generations, who are so aware of change and of the need for change that they can find nothing solid to hold to. They haven’t the background to know that problems have been solved in the past, that present and future problems will in turn be solved, that the existence of problems is not in itself grounds for bitterness. They hear their disillusioned elders speak of the future with despair and they have no basis for disbelief. Yet instinctively, they do disbelieve—and I wonder if this, as much as the world’s obvious lack of perfection, may not be why they find it so hard to believe anything else their elders tell them. They cannot accept the now-fashionable notion that the universe is patternless and absurd; they are looking for answers. Inside, they know that those answers must exist.

Young people cannot be blamed for thinking the answers are simple. Earlier generations have thought the same. But nowadays one’s faith in a simple answer cannot survive very long; what Space Age generations need is awareness that one must not expect simple answers, and that humanity’s progress toward solutions is a long, slow process that extends not merely over years, but over centuries. Knowledge of past history alone does not give such awareness because most of today’s teenagers just don’t care about the past. Significance, to them, lies not in what has been, but in what is to come. I believe that only by pointing out relationships between past, present, and future can we help them to gain the perspective that is the true object of their search.

One might wonder how I can consider this need for perspective so fundamental when for years, psychologists have been saying that people’s basic need is for security. Yet I think our young people are showing over and over again that they do not want security, at least not security as it has commonly been defined. A great deal of effort has been devoted to making them secure, yet many turn their backs and deliberately seek out something dangerous to do. The security they need cannot come from outside; it must come from within, from experiences through which each person proves that he or she is capable of handling the stresses of an indisputably insecure world. But no one can handle a situation in which he sees no pattern, no meaning. There can be no security without direction. Thus a perspective on the future is implicit in the very concept of inner security.

One’s view of the future is, of course, a highly personal thing. Our beliefs can differ greatly as to the direction we are going, or ought to go. In my books I naturally present my own opinions, and I don’t expect all readers to agree with them. But I hope that even those who do not agree will gain something by being encouraged to develop their private thoughts about the topics I deal with. I hope that they will be convinced that we are going somewhere, and that this will help to counter the all-too-prevalent feeling that human evolution is over and done with. It is this, more than anything else, that I try to put across: the idea that there is continuity to history, that progress—however slow—does occur, and that whatever happens to us on this planet is part of some overall pattern that encompasses the entire universe. We are not in a position to see the pattern. We can only make guesses about it, and many of those guesses are bound to be wrong. Still, I do not believe that guessing, either in fantasy or in serious speculation, is a futile task; for when we ignore the issue, we are apt to forget that the pattern exists whether we see it or not. That, I think, is the root of many young people’s turmoil. They have no conviction that there is any pattern.

A common reaction to the space flights so far undertaken seems to be that we had better appreciate Earth because it’s the only good planet there is. It is quite true that it is the only one in this solar system that is suitable for us to live on at present, and that those of this system are the only ones we have any immediate prospect of reaching. But the attitude that no other planet is worth anything strikes me as a new form of provincialism. Our solar system is merely a small part of a vast universe that contains billions upon billions of stars. People sometimes ask me if I really believe that there are habitable planets circling those other stars; the answer is that I do, and that most scientists now do also. Not everyone seems to realize this; several acquaintances told me rather shamefacedly that they themselves thought that there is life in other solar systems, although they were sure that scientists would laugh at them. As a result, I wrote a nonfiction book [The Planet-Girded Suns, 1974; updated edition published in 2012] that I hoped would explain to young people not only what modern scientists did believe, but what many philosophers of past ages believed about an infinity of worlds. The idea is not new, and it has not been confined to science fiction. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in the year 1600 for holding it.

Of course, I do not believe that the inhabitants of other solar systems are as much like us in the physical and cultural sense as I have depicted them in my novels. Most serious science fiction does not make them so similar, and I think that many potential readers are thereby turned away. They are put off by the weird element inherent in any attempt to imagine what sentient species other than ours would be like. I feel that this is distracting. Since we don’t know what they are like and my aim is to show essentially identical spiritual qualities, it seems to me best to portray them in our terms, just as I have to make them speak in our language. Also, in Enchantress from the Stars, I wanted to leave open the question of which, if any, of the people were from Earth. Only in that way could I make my point about various levels of advancement.

This point, which is further developed in The Far Side of Evil, concerns evolutionary advancement, not mere cultural advancement. My intent was to comment upon relationships between eras of history, and between peoples at different stages of evolution, not relationships between societies here on Earth. We of Earth, whatever our nationality or our color, are all members of the same human race. We are one people, one species. Someday, generations hence, we may encounter other sentient species. It is not too soon for us to begin thinking about our identity as a people, our place in a universe inhabited by many; the young are better aware of that than most adults.

To those who do not believe that there will ever be contact between the stars, I would like to suggest that as far as contemporary youth’s perspective is concerned, it makes no difference whether there is or not. The mere idea is, in itself, of consequence. I am troubled by science fiction’s usual portrayal of advanced aliens either as hostile, or as presumptuous meddlers who take it upon themselves to interfere with the evolutionary process. The dangers of the first attitude are obvious; those of the second are perhaps less so. Maybe the whole issue seems remote and insignificant when we have so much else to worry about. Yet if young people acquire the idea that some extrasolar civilization could solve our problems for us if its starships happened to come here, or that it would consider our failings evidence that our whole human race is wicked instead of merely immature, will that not add to their already-great sense of futility? Will it not interfere with whatever perspective on human history they have managed to absorb? I think it will; and furthermore, whether there really are any alien civilizations is immaterial. Science fiction may be fantasy, but that young people like it and are affected by it is fact. It is also a fact that the Voyager probe launched by NASA carried a plaque designed to communicate its origin to any intelligent beings who recover it after it passes out of our solar system. It may be that no aliens will ever see that plaque, but our children saw it on television; their attitude toward its hypothetical viewers is bound to influence their attitude toward our own civilization.

Their view of civilization is already confused and inconsistent enough. On one hand, many believe that only scientific knowledge is factual, and that advancement is merely a matter of inventions and technical skill. On the other, during the past few years some people, especially the young, have come to distrust science, to blame it for our problems and even to question the value of technological advance—which, I believe, is the greatest distortion of perspective I have yet seen. Today, in their quest for meaning, young people are challenging the materialistic outlook many scientists have held in the past—and rightly so. At the same time, however, some of them are rejecting not only inadequate theories, but the whole idea of scientific progress. They seem to feel that in so doing they are defending spiritual values against some implacable enemy. They imagine that they seek a wider truth. Yet actually this viewpoint is equally narrow and in fact self-contradictory, for truth is precisely what science seeks, and has always sought from its very beginnings. There has never been any conflict between the real scientific attitude and spiritual values, where there appears to be; the trouble is with the particular theory involved and not with science as such. Truth is truth; science is simply the name given to the part we have attempted to organize and verify.

I think the current misunderstanding is the result of our tendency since the late 19th century to compartmentalize science, to separate it from the rest of life in the same way that some people separate religion. There was a time when the major scientific thought of an era could be understood by every educated person; but for many years now specialization has been necessary, and this has led to an unfortunate conception of what science is. Non-scientists have gotten the idea that it is some kind of esoteric cult that stands apart from other human endeavors, while both they and the scientists themselves have felt that its realms have been charted and need only to be conquered. When young people observe that there are things worth investigating outside these realms, and that some of our current scientific theories are questionable, it often doesn’t occur to them that the answer lies not in abandoning science but in expanding it: refuting its dogmatic portions as dogma has been refuted countless times in the past. This, perhaps, is why some of them are turning in desperation to supernaturalism, astrology, and the like. Yet science is distinguished from superstition not by the subject matter with which it deals, but by the maturity of its explanations; it is distinguished from philosophy not by content, but by the availability of data to which objective scientific methods can be applied. All the phenomena now dealt with by science were once explained by superstition and, as an intermediate step, all our sciences were once divisions of philosophy. For that matter, there are advanced theories in all fields that are philosophic in that they are not yet subject to empirical proof. Because nowadays the people who hold such theories are called scientists and not philosophers, we get the impression that the theories are authoritative; but actually some are no more so than theories of the Middle Ages that have been disproven.

The point to be made is that this process of progression is by no means finished or complete. There is no area of truth that is outside the province of science in principle, though there are many that science lacks the practical means to investigate at its present stage of development. It is thus a great mistake to identify science with materialism, and to assume that it inherently deals only with the material aspects of the universe, when the fact is merely that these aspects can be more readily studied than other aspects that we are just beginning to rescue from the realms of the “supernatural.” There is no such thing as the supernatural, since “natural,” by definition, includes all aspects of reality. But too many of us have shut out parts of reality. We have discarded not only superstition, but also the areas with which superstition presently deals, forgetting that the superstition of today is merely an immature explanation of the science of tomorrow. We have failed to recognize that there are natural laws that cannot be explained in terms of the ones we know because they are, in themselves, equally basic.

Worse, our society has tended to assume that there is a firm line between science and religion. It has outgrown trust in superstition, and many have identified faith with superstition, discarding that also. Yet the fact that the physical aspects of natural law are the most readily analyzed does not mean that there isn’t a spiritual reality that is just as real, just as much a part of the universe, as the material reality that science has so far studied objectively. I don’t wonder that young people have difficulty in viewing the world with perspective when they have been led to feel that it is necessary to reject one or the other. The young today sense that moral and spiritual values are important, though they will not accept dogma in religion any more than in any other field, and it is understandably hard for them to reconcile their innate idealism with a science that is seemingly opposed.

To me, science itself can never be opposed to truth in any form whatsoever, no matter how many specific theories may be mistaken, and no matter how dogmatic certain scientists may be in support of their own era’s beliefs. This is how I have viewed it in Enchantress from the Stars, and I think one of the book’s appeals for young people is that it does take seriously certain things outside the traditional bounds of science, such as extrasensory perception, without putting a materialistic interpretation on them. I hope readers notice that nowhere have I suggested that advanced peoples, in progressing beyond a materialistic orientation, would give up any of their technology; because I feel strongly that as they matured, they would improve their technology and learn to put it to better use.

I am convinced, therefore, that the solution to future problems lies not in de-emphasizing science, but in advancing it, as well as in an outlook that recognizes that the science of any given age is imperfect and incomplete. For instance, I believe that while there is much that can and should be done now to slow the rate of population growth, the only permanent answer to overpopulation is the colonization of new worlds. I have been asked how I can approve of our colonizing planets in other solar systems if other sentient species exist. Certainly I don’t think we should colonize planets that are already occupied; I trust my books make that very clear. What I do think is that there are many worlds on which no intelligent life has evolved that can be made livable by advanced technology, and that in the normal course of a sentient species’ evolution, it expands and utilizes such worlds. There is nothing less natural in that than in our ancestors building the ships and other equipment needed to colonize America. Pioneering is a basic human activity; that’s the comparison I tried to draw in Journey Between Worlds.

This question of what is natural for us seems to need a good deal of examination right now. There is a feeling prevalent today, particularly among young people, that we ought to get “back to nature.” Insofar as this means preserving and enjoying the beauties of our world, it is a good thing. But those who say that we as a species should live in a more “natural” way are, I think, overlooking what “natural” means as applied to human beings. It is the nature of animal species to remain the same from generation to generation, evolving only as adaptation to physical environment may demand. It is the nature of our own species, however—and of whatever other sapient races may inhabit this universe—to learn, to change, and to progress. There is no point at which it is “natural” to stop, for to cease changing is contrary to the mental instincts that are uniquely human. If it were not so, all learning, from the discovery of fire to the conquest of disease, would be unnatural, and I don’t think anyone believes that—least of all the young, who are more eager for change than their elders. It is the nature of humans to solve problems. It is the nature of humans to grope continuously toward an understanding of truth. There may be disagreement as to means, disagreement as to what is true and what is not, but never on the principle that to search for truth is an inherent attribute of humankind.

In my novels This Star Shall Abide and its sequel Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains [the first two volumes of the Children of the Star trilogy], I said quite a bit about the search for truth, from both the scientific and the religious standpoints; and I also tried to say something about the importance of faith. Yet the people of these stories are stranded in a desperate situation where only advanced technology, and an eventual major advance in scientific theory, can prevent their extinction. To achieve this advance, they are dependent on the kind of creative inspiration that has underlain all human progress since the beginning of time. Their religion is central to their culture, and it is in no way a materialistic religion; but the hope it offers them can be fulfilled only through faith in the ultimate success of their scientific research.

I wrote a description of these two books for Atheneum in which I defined science as the portion of truth that no longer demands faith for acceptance. That’s the way I look at science: it is part of a larger truth. I believe that if we can give young people that sort of attitude toward it—if they can be helped to view its failure to provide all the answers overnight with neither hostility nor despair, but with the willingness to keep on searching—we will go a long way toward building their perspective on the future. And I believe that it is such perspective, more than anything else, that will fit them to take their place in tomorrow’s world.

Copyright 1972, 2002 by Sylvia Louise Engdahl
All rights reserved.

This essay is included in my book Reflections on the Future: Collected Essays.