Depending upon what calendar you use, Olwen is either ten (Isis years) or sixteen (Earth years.) She thinks and remembers in Isis years, however, so let’s go with that. Despite this very young age, she actually has a fairly important, responsible job: transmitting various reports from the planet she lives on back to Earth.
She does this not because she is qualified, exactly, but because everyone else on the planet is either dead, unable to speak in words, or a not-completely trusted AI. And because, for various reasons, she can. That ability—well, strangeness, really—is what makes her The Keeper of the Isis Light.
As the book unfolds, we learn various tidbits about Olwen: one, she is the only human (of sorts) currently living on Isis, a planet marked for potential colonization from Earth. (Thus, the need to send reports, so that Earth can determine just how suitable Isis is for colonization.) Two, she’s not exactly alone on the planet. Along with something that initially sounds a bit like a dog, and ends up actually being a fuzzy sort of dragon called, and I’m not making this up, “Hobbit,” she’s also cared for by a creature she calls Guardian, who appears to be some sort of robot, but one with the power to—almost—mimic human emotions, and care. Guardian, as the name implies, shelters her and also more or less functions as a parent, setting rules and creating fabulous dresses and so on for her.
And three, she seems to have some sort of superpowers.
The wording here is beautifully subtle, but even in the first few chapters, when Olwen has no one to compare herself to, her ability to climb and walk for great distances, and make pets of dragon thingies, it becomes fairly clear that Olwen is not your average human, however we classify that. But she doesn’t have that much time to think about it, since actual humans are arriving to colonize Isis at last. Without a lot of warning, I must say.
Olwen is excited: friends! Humans! Something totally new! Guardian, for reasons he decides not to immediately disclose, is less excited. Olwen can meet these humans—in fact, as the person in charge of the primary communications systems with Earth, has to meet these humans—but she can do so only while wearing a protective suit and mask. Bacteria, he adds, not altogether convincingly.
Robots, it seems, can lie. A lot.
The settlers figure out fairly quickly that something is off here—after all, Olwen is living on top of a mesa, an area with very limited oxygen and high exposure to UV rays, a place that is impossible for humans to live, or even visit without wearing oxygen masks, instead of down in the relatively human-friendly valleys that at least have oxygen. (It’s the small things.) They just believe that she’s lying about not using a mask at home.
The settlers also believe that Guardian is wrong to insist that Olwen wear a mask and suit on each and every visit to the colony. The doctor even takes a blood sample, so he can prove that Guardian is wrong about the bacteria, a blood sample that leads to some interesting revelations. When Guardian finds out about this, he’s enraged.
None of this stops Olwen from making her very first real human friend ever: Mark. Oh, sure, she can outrun and outclimb Mark, and Mark has to bring along a lot of oxygen in order to keep breathing at the top of the mesas, but they can still talk: Olwen can explain what living on Isis is like, and Mark can explain the horrors back on Earth—while admitting that he still misses the Moon. Since they are both young, they naturally start falling instantly and completely in love and it’s all very romantic and sweet right until Mark sees her with her mask off.
That goes badly.
The Keeper of the Isis Light is an exploration of technology, of prejudice, of humanity, of emotions. The “actual” humans in the colony are compared to the “not exactly” humans up on the mesa: Olwen, whose very genetic structure has been altered to allow her to survive on Isis, and Guardian, the AI robot who made those changes to her. And the colony humans, in turn, are compared to the humans back on earth, currently trapped in overcrowded high rises, with legal limitations on how many children they can have, with no space of their own.
In this book, Hughes wobbles between a love/hate relationship with technology. Later, Hughes would abandon the love and go entirely for the hate, but we aren’t quite there yet; this book has a much more nuanced approach. On the one hand, current conditions on Earth genuinely suck, thanks mostly to technology. On the other hand, the main hope for improving those conditions lies with space exploration—technology. The alterations made to Olwen’s body separate her from humanity—more than one of the “human” characters describe her as “alien”—but also kept her alive, and gave her physical freedom and abilities that the other humans can only dream of. Guardian is a manipulative, controlling, and untruthful robot—who also has saved Olwen’s life and brought her happiness and is more ethical, in his way, than many of the humans.
I’ll also add that although the text and Guardian itself try to claim that the robot has no capacity for emotions or loneliness, and works only from logical deductions, I find myself doubting this: it’s not just that the robot is running around lying and hypnotizing people which is not exactly behavior I associate with detached, unemotional robots, but also, more than once, this robot really does seem to care. Not just about Olwen, either, but about responsibility and the other members of the colony.
The book has several other wonderful small touches: the descriptions of Isis’ two tiny moons and the disoriented feel they give to humans who grew up under a single large moon; the way Olwen continues to think in Isis years, not human years; the dress that Olwen wears that makes music as she walks. Also, the dragon. (Though fellow dragon lovers, prepare to have your hearts broken, just a little.)
But what truly make this book are the final chapters: a complex, emotional picture of the many types of love, acceptance, tolerance and fear. It’s not exactly the traditional sort of happy ending readers might be looking for. (And I was kinda hoping that someone would have a longer chat with the robot about acceptable forms of robot behavior.) But it is, in its way, a happy ending, and moreover, an ending Olwen chooses for herself. I had to cheer. Plus, dragon.
Mari Ness is still hoping to have a real, live, little dragon of her own someday. In the meantime she has become the caretaker for two cats in central Florida.