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Stewards of the Flame    by Sylvia Engdahl order for
Stewards of the Flame
by Sylvia Engdahl
Order:  USA  Can
BookSurge, 2007 (2007)
* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Stewards of the Flame takes place in the distant future on another planet, which was colonized years before by people from earth. The government is democratic, with elections, but those who are elected and in charge are all Meds, doctors or others in the medical profession. There have been tremendous advances in medicine by this time, and no one needs to be sick, anymore - indeed, no one is allowed to be sick. Each person on the planet is tested and monitored from birth, to the extent that babies cannot be conceived naturally, but must be screened first. People bank their sperm and ovaries and when they have children, the children spend most of their early life in crèches, where they are carefully taught the status quo.

There are some people on this world who don't want to be cured by doctors of every ill, and who are able to learn healing techniques that don't require medicine. They are horrified at the practice on their planet of keeping the bodies of those who die on life support forever, even though there is no longer any brain activity. When starship captain Jesse Sanders is arrested by an ambulance crew for the crime of alcoholism, he is stranded on Undine and becomes involved with this group, who call themselves the stewards of the flame.

This is an interesting well-written book; however the story gets bogged down in discussions of all that is wrong on the planet and the impossibility of openly defying the authorities or changing anything. The reader gets caught up in the story and over and over, the action comes up short with lengthy conversations between characters that really don't tell the reader anything new. Jesse and some of the others seem uncharacteristically dull and slow at times as they suddenly realize during these conversations what the reader has figured out pages before. All of the characters are extremely intelligent and well-educated people, and this repetition is frustrating for the reader.

Nevertheless, the story is original and interesting. The author explains in an afterword that she self-published because this book doesn't fit into established science fiction genres. However, having read both science fiction and fantasy extensively, I'm not sure why she felt that way. She also didn't want it categorized, as she thought it would appeal to a broader type of reader if it weren't labeled science fiction. There is an afterword explaining some of the trends in the medical world in our own times that seem to portend some of the unfortunate controls of the novel.

I would have enjoyed this novel so much more, if the repetitiveness and undercurrent of warning that it could happen to us had not been there. Somehow, I think that there are other things to worry about in our world today than whether doctors are trying to take over. Also, there is a current swelling of interest among many people in alternative kinds of medicine, including Eastern medical practices such as acupuncture or meditation that can negate the necessity for medical intervention. However, that said, I did find the story interesting and plan to read another one of Sylvia Engdahl's books, as she has managed to spin a good SF yarn, in spite of her remarks to the contrary.

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