From One Problem Colony to Another: Crisis on Conshelf Ten

English-Canadian author Monica Hughes is yet another author that I somehow managed to miss while growing up, despite my endless quest for more robot books. Possibly because I was reading too much Enid Blyton. It’s a pity; although Hughes could be repetitive and uneven, and wrote at least one novel that left me sputtering (not the one in this post), she also wrote some deeply thoughtful, provocative works of speculative fiction for children and young adults, works that include one of her earliest novels, Crisis on Conshelf Ten.

As with her later books, Crisis on Conshelf Ten pulls deeply from Hughes’ experience of living in multiple countries and cultures, as well as her ongoing concern with—later near obsession with—overpopulation, resource exploitation, and the environment. Fortunately, in this book, plot and character still remains paramount.

Mostly.

Kepler Masterman has spent his entire life on the Moon, something that becomes a disadvantage when he visits Earth for the first time at the age of 15. Unaccustomed to the gravity, he has difficulty walking, and keeps passing out and having severe nose bleeds. His only relief is the hotel swimming pool, something that gives his father an idea: during this six month stay until a return rocket is available, Kepler should spend his time on one of the new colonies under the sea. It should be healthier and safer. Should.

Before heading down beneath the surface, Kepler receives some basic SCUBA and other underwater training from Hilary, a beautiful teenager from one of the underwater communities who is finishing college up on land. Kepler finds Hilary very attractive, and the two even have an almost date in full view of the moon—but Kepler is firmly engaged to a Moon girl called Ann, and Hilary just happens to be dating his cousin, Jon, another underwater resident. (Hughes never does explain just why all of Kepler’s family ends up joining various colonies on the moon and the continental shelf, but it provides for some interesting speculation.)

That undercurrent—sorry—of attraction remains between them, however, coloring Kepler’s reactions to events. As does his awareness that he is only on Earth because his father, the current governor of the Moon, is addressing the United Nations in an attempt to solve the many trade issues and inequalities between the Earth and the Moon.

It does not take Kepler long to realize that the underwater community he joins—Conshelf Ten—suffers many of the same issues that his own community up on earth does: namely, the terrestrial governments on earth are severely exploiting Conshelf Ten’s resources and giving very little in return. It’s not quite as bad underwater as it is up on the moon: Conshelf Ten has plenty of water, for one, and its residents are able to do interesting things with seafood products and even have some color and luxuries, in contrast to the almost barren moon environment, where each drop of water is at a premium, and colors and things like rugs and even most furniture is at a premium. In some ways, however, it’s even worse, since it’s considerably easier to travel between the land and underwater communities, not to mention less expensive, and the underwater communities are providing significant food resources for the ever greedy, luxury oriented terrestrial communities. With the Moon, terrestrial governments at least have the very valid excuse of the expense of rocket fuel.

The underwater communities are different in another way as well: some of their members have been able to adapt completely to an underwater life, modifying their bodies to have gills instead of lungs. The unaltered humans call them gillmen and gillers; they are rare enough to remain a legend to some parts of the community, but most of the community is well aware of their existence—and not eager to share this secret with anyone from the land or the moon.

Kepler, naturally, finds out, after he does something stupid and needs rescue. Which leads him to the next discovery: the gillers and Hilary, increasingly desperate over policies, are turning to violence and sabotage in a desperate hope to change the status quo.

As it turns out, Hilary has some excellent reasons for turning to sabotage and terrorism: she believes, with reason, that negotiation with land-based governments has already failed, leaving her and the gillmen with no other options but violence. Kepler is sympathetic—negotiations between his own community and earth governments have not gone all that well. But he’s also terrified that this violence will create a reaction not just against the underwater communities, but also his father’s current negotiations with terrestrial governments. Everyone in the underwater communities can get back to land (if slowly, to avoid the bends) without assistance from terrestrial governments. But the Moon residents have no such recourse: if Earth cuts them off, they will die, since they do not have the ability to create their own food and water. Kepler is desperate to stop her. And not too pleased that Hilary has basically set him up in order to divert attention from what she’s doing.

A few parts of this 1970s book haven’t dated all that well. For instance, early on Kepler notes that he can’t expect letters from his girlfriend, Ann, because the cost of transporting them from the Moon to the Earth is too expensive. I’ll buy that, completely, but what this entirely leaves out is the possibility of wireless communications/emails/Facebook and so on (with a few seconds delay), largely because this book was originally published in 1975 well before any of that was around. I’d still argue that even 1970s technology would have allowed for the idea of private messages—after all, Star Trek, which predates this, certainly allowed for that, though to be fair, Hughes is using the idea of actual handwritten letters that need to be carried more to make a point about Kepler’s status (wealthy and more privileged than Ann’s) than to make any point about later lunar/earth communications. Also, the United Nations roll call has changed ever so slightly from the 1970s to today; Hughes couldn’t have foreseen the specifics about this, but it does create a slightly jarring note.

And a few other points haven’t been made that well. For instance, as Kepler approaches the Earth, we get this:

“The planet’s all water!” I gasped.

“Seven-tenths of it is,” Father agreed.

This is all very nice, and serves to make the point that Moon = has no water, and Kepler isn’t used to it, but the problem is, Kepler is also 15, and the text tells us that yes, he has been taught about Earth, and has even met quite a few people from Earth, and has seen pictures of Earth. The same point probably could have been made with a bit of tweaking: having Kepler note that he’d heard about this, but seeing it was completely different.

And now and then, Hughes descends into cliché, as in a moment when the narrator assures us that he absolutely, positively does know what he’s doing and he’s perfectly safe, only to be in major trouble and nearly dead a couple of paragraphs later. It’s not played for comedy or self-realization, either, although it’s a decent segue into the central mystery of the book. I’d also say that one of the revelations made by the first person protagonist towards the end of the book is just a touch of a cheat, especially since there’s no real reason for Kepler to hide this information from readers.

I also have one or two questions about the biology of these transformations (namely, what happens when a giller gives birth, since the changes are surgical, not genetic—the giller can’t breathe air, but presumably the baby can’t breathe water) as well as some general questions about water and atmospheric pressure. Hughes makes up for this, however, by providing an alibi for Kepler that manages to be brilliant, scientifically accurate and something anyone who has ever gone snorkeling or diving can relate to.

And despite these issues, Crisis on Conshelf Ten takes a serious look at multiple issues: resource allocation, exploitation, political violence, political dialogue, apathy and anger. If it occasionally has to do a few narratively questionable things to get there, and if the anti-war message can occasionally be overly didactic, it remains worth a read. It was a to be a positive omen for her later books.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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