Rejecting Technology for Taboo: The Guardian of Isis

Four generations—or at least sixty years—have passed on Isis since The Keeper of the Isis Light. For the colony that mutually rejected Olwen, the Keeper, and her AI Guardian years ago, however, things have not been going all that well. The colony is still trapped in the same valley, and, probably because this is a Monica Hughes book, is starting to run short on food.

Far worse, apparently in reaction to the events in the previous book, the colonists have deliberately gone backwards. They’ve discarded technology (including rather important elements like water gauges to track just how high the lake is getting), turned Guardian and Olwen into mythological figures to be worshipped instead of approached for technological assistance, discarded literacy, and added elements like “taboo” and sexism. I knew rejecting Olwen was going to be a bad thing, but this bad? Harsh.

See what your meddling led to, Guardian of Isis?

Much of this turns out to be because of President Mark London, who, you may remember, was not exactly a shining light in the previous book. Either because of shame or general fear, he and the other men of his generation have created various laws and rituals. Some make sense—notably calling the upper mountains taboo, since the air there is insufficient to allow unmodified humans to breathe, taboo. It also, I suppose, makes sense to serve the entire not that large yet community in large group meals with two settings.

(Total sidenote: these group meals tend to be a theme in 1970s/80s post-apocalyptic and colonist children’s fiction. Which is interesting, since although serving all community members in one or two large sit down meals is not exactly unheard of, and is even a staple feature of large cruise ships, it’s not always a feature of village communities, outside of festivals and feasts—and nearly all of these fictional meals occur in village communities, like the one in Guardian of Isis. What’s particularly interesting is that nearly all of these communal meals occur in deeply repressive societies, or societies attempting to recover from repression—leading to the idea that small family meals are only served with Freedom! Or I’m overanalyzing things. Moving on.)

Most of the new laws and customs, however, do not make sense, to the point of causing active harm to the community. One particular ritual, a yearly offering to the Guardian (revered as a religious figure) has even gotten people, and by people I mean the kids selected to conduct the ritual, killed. Something young Jody N’Kumo, of a scientific mindset, realizes. He is particularly aggrieved to see his various attempts at inventing things treated as worthless toys. The people criticizing him do have somewhat of a point: partly thanks to that abandonment of technology, and partly because of population growth combined with an inability to expand outside the valley (taboo!), food supplies are short, and everyone needs to be gathering food/hunting things. And Jody’s inventions go directly against the anti-technology spirit installed in the community.

Nonetheless, Jody is deeply resentful. As a loner who rarely hangs out with others—partly because, as the youngest member of the Third generation, only slightly older than members of the Fourth generation, he really has no peers to hang out with—he’s unaware that others share at least some of his resentment, which just intensifies his feelings of isolation. He is, however, aware, if bewildered by, Mark London’s hatred and resentment of him (a hatred more based on London’s ongoing enmity with Jody’s grandfather). This in turn causes him to go off on his own more and more—and discover not only a nice new shiny gift from, as he correctly assumes, Guardian, but also something much more alarming: the rising water of the lake.

These discoveries put Jody into direct conflict with Mark London, who decides that the best way to handle the situation is to send Jody off to talk to the Guardian—beyond the mountains, in the taboo lands. Jody quietly goes. The meeting is almost as transformative for them as it is for him.

The Guardian of Isis is fast paced, often compelling, filled with quick, convincing character sketches, and those who liked The Keeper of the Isis Light will almost certainly want to pick this one up. And, it’s a 1980s science fiction book with explicitly black protagonists, a plus.

And yet I have huge problems buying most of it.

First, because, as the book begins, several people who can clearly remember Earth and its technology are still around, as well as several other people who can remember even more people who can remember Earth, its technology and spaceships. It certainly makes sense for the Third and Fourth generations (called “Thirds” and “Fourths”) to be a bit skeptical—to the point where they no longer believe that their grandparents and great grandparents really came from Earth. (It would probably help if they were told that the little star they look at on Thanksgiving is not actually Earth but the star the Earth revolves around, but let’s move on.) It makes a lot less sense for the Firsts and Seconds to be going along with this. Especially since they should be aware that they are only the first of many potential colony ships (something about to come up in the next book). Especially especially since many of them actually met Olwen (in her mask) and Guardian, so for them to encourage the worship/fear of what they know is a robot and a surgically altered human feels a bit much. And yet, here almost all of them are, encouraging yearly sacrifices to that robot and ritual guarding of the Secret Robot Place. It’s…not working for me.

Also, to be honest, I’m slightly confused by what the colony means by “Firsts” given that two generations—coupled parents with two children each—showed up to colonize the planets, and also, I can’t help thinking that, based on the first book alone, some generation jumping would have been happening, given that those kids were not really of the same age. That even happens in this book, with Jody’s first friend and apparent love interest coming from the younger generation.

Hughes also greatly handwaves one element that had been so powerful in the previous book: namely, the difficulty humans have adjusting to Isis. Olwen had to be surgically transformed into something no longer immediately recognizable as human; just two generations later, Jody is travelling up to the heights of Isis without a mask or other protective—and living. There’s an analogy to this on Earth today, of course, where people living in mountain ranges making biological adaptations to living there, so that’s understandable. What’s less understandable is the insistence that Olwen and the original settlers couldn’t possibly make these biological adaptations without surgery, and yet two genetic generations have been enough to allow Jody to make these adaptations without surgery. And Jody hasn’t been living up in the mountains—he’s been living in the valleys, where the colonists were and are able to walk around without oxygen masks or genetic mutations.

I also have difficulty believing that Guardian would not have headed back to the colony to check on its communications equipment when messages stopped coming from the colony. Guardian’s primary purpose is to protect Olwen, certainly, but a secondary purpose is to maintain communications with passing spaceships, transmit communications back to earth, and, oh yes, protect any new arriving human colonists. Or that Guardian, once alerted to the multiple issues that have developed in the colony, would tell Jody at the end of the book that this probably has to be their last meeting. After all, to repeat an earlier point, Guardian is aware that more spaceships might very well be on their way.

Which is a nice tie to the next book, coming up next.


Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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