Sylvia Louise Engdahl,
Journey Between Worlds
(1970; Penguin, 2006)

Forget shiny new cars or lump sums of money -- for her high school graduation, Melinda's father gives her a roundtrip ticket to Mars. In this near-future setting, space travel is possible but prohibitively expensive: this trip with her beloved if often absent father is the opportunity of a lifetime.

There's just one problem. She doesn't want to go.

Melinda may be a 21st-century girl, but she has no interest in Mars and its colonies. She wants nothing more than to become a teacher, marry her boyfriend Ross and lead a quiet, conservative life in a house by the sea. It is only after an unexpected quarrel with Ross that Melinda finds herself, much to her surprise and dismay, setting off for this brave new world. Along the way, however, she meets an intriguing young man named Alex Preston, who is on his way back to Mars, the red planet of his birth -- a chance encounter that has the power to change everything that Melinda thought she wanted.

Don't expect much more than that as far as plot goes -- and don't expect little green men or intergalactic struggles between good and evil, either. Sylvia Louise Engdahl's unusual SF novels are idea- and character-driven, and Journey Between Worlds is no exception. Apart from a number of attitude adjustments, not a whole lot actually happens in Melinda's retrospective account of her 10-week journey to Mars and subsequent time on the planet itself.

There may not be much action, but Engdahl's well-realized vision of Mars is a compelling reason to read the book. Details about New Terran architecture, Martian politics and even Christmas on a planet with few material commodities paint a thoughtful -- if somewhat utopic -- picture of human civilization on Mars. Because technology is never emphasized, more than three decades after its original publication, Engdahl's many-domed Mars still seems relevant and plausible.

To get to the descriptions of Mars, however, you'll have to put up with much whining from Melinda about her love life and homesickness. Journey Between Worlds has the misfortune of being a character-driven novel with singularly unlikable characters. Melinda is a disappointing protagonist who spends a good deal of her time on Mars in her hotel room complaining of boredom. When not thus engaged, her second favorite pastime involves being pushed around by older men who are patronising, manipulative and prone to correcting her admittedly ill-informed notions. Melinda never gets a good rejoinder in, and she doesn't even seem to mind.

Mars may have aged gracefully, but the book's gender politics have not: sexism is intrinsic to the plot and legitimized by the romance. Needless to say, this sexism seriously undermines Journey Between Worlds both as a romance and as a coming-of-age story. Engdahl notes in her afterword that revisions were made to this edition to address such issues, but my usually well-behaved inner feminist remains appalled.

Of course, this won't bother all readers, and Engdahl's vision of the red planet may be worth tolerating Melinda and maybe even Alex. However, Engdahl's other books are so much better -- try Enchantress from the Stars and the trilogy Children of the Star for blazingly intelligent, deeply thoughtful young-adult SF -- that Journey Between Worlds should be read, if at all, only after exhausting the rest of the Engdahl canon.

by Jennifer Mo
5 May 2007

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