The Isis Pedlar, the third book in Monica Hughes’ Isis trilogy, starts not on Isis as you might expect, but rather in deep space, where Irish conman Mike and his long suffering teenage daughter and partial enabler Moira are in trouble. Again. In this case fairly serious trouble: the hyperdrive on their spaceship has died, again, and Mike’s major response to this is to express faith in his daughter, which is nice, and drink. A lot. Because, of course, Irish.
Somewhat fortunately for them, Moira realizes that they are near a planet and its colony and may be able to make repairs and get supplies. Less fortunately for everyone, this planet is Isis.
At some point between the last book and this one, Isis has been put under official Quarantine—not for diseases or strange alien things but because, as the Quarantine clearly states, the original Earth colonists are in a Primitive Agricultural State. At this point, I screamed out loud, put the book down, apologized to cats, and went off to get some tea.
The Quarantine was presumably requested and set by Olwen and Guardian after the events of the last book, where the two had learned that the colonists had, indeed, regressed to a Primitive Agricultural State after seeing the effects of surgery on Olwen. I say “presumably” because although I guess the colonists could have requested this, Olwen and Guardian were in charge of and running all of the interstellar communications equipment and that Olwen would be continuing her assigned task of transmitting data. If you recall, I was not overly impressed or pleased with that Primitive Agricultural State in the earlier book, and it’s worse here, since this Quarantine reminds me that:
1. Olwen and Guardian had the ability to inform various traveling spaceships that the original colonists had completely lost track of their original mission and instead regressed into a Primitive Agricultural State with a not particularly benevolent dictator and religious rituals that were getting colonists killed, and decided to let this go.
2. Olwen and Guardian were well aware that spaceships could pass by at any time, and decided to leave the colonists, who, remember, were originally fully aware of the existence of spaceships (as of this book, we’re only on the great-grandchildren/great-great grandchildren generation of the original colonists) in a state that left them completely unable to deal with passing spaceships.
3. And, bear in mind, that the colonists had been back in a Primitive Agricultural State for several years before Olwen and Guardian realized this—because when the colony stopped transmitting messages, Olwen and Guardian didn’t bother to go check on them. So, the colony was actually in this Primitive Agricultural State that needs to be protected at all costs for DECADES before Olwen and Guardian were like, oh, yes. We have to quarantine this.
4. Though, granted, since no one out in space is enforcing this Quarantine at all, and the colonists are, to repeat, ALL PRIMITIVE, Olwen and Guardian could not possibly have put a larger PLEASE EXPLOIT US sign on the planet if they’d tried. In which case, why put the sign on?
5. Making this even worse, if possible: Isis is a large planet. Granted, much of it isn’t safe for human habitation, so chances are good that passing by spaceships might end up at the colony anyway, but Olwen and Guardian who have explored much of the rest of the planet really wanted to protect the colony, they could have found a place on the other side and marked it land here please thus sorta protecting the colony without any warnings of “EXPLOIT US NOW PLEASE.”
Anyway. Moving on to this book, Mike, immediately demonstrating the entire issue with marking planets with “Hi, just primitive defenseless people here THANKS MUCHLY” immediately hops down to the planet and starts to con the entire colony. It’s easy enough, because—remember the last book, where Guardian and Olwen decided that instead of, well, fixing the communications equipment, or going back to the colonists themselves, they would let a small boy who was the community outsider save things? Yeah. Well. That went well. The colonists are actually more ignorant and technologically poor than they were the last time we saw them, absolutely unaware of the idea that other planets and communities exist (by now, the children of the original settlers are all dead) and thus more than willing to believe that Mike comes from their God, the Guardian.
I can’t help but think that Guardian and Olwen actually hate all of the colonists.
Anyway again. A few of the colonists are suspicious—Mike is very mean to birds, and doesn’t deal with the colonists particularly fairly. And Jody, who remembers Guardian, Olwen, and above all, oxygen and ultraviolet light, immediately realizes that something is off. But the president, Roger London, is thrilled to get his ultimate desire from Mike—power. Or at least something that gives the appearance of it. His support, and some thoughtful food that Mike calls ambrosia, Moira calls honeycake, and the rest of you will call extremely addictive drugs, results in most of the colony happily digging up valuable firestones for Mike, who promises endless ambrosia in return. Mike is delighted; he will be wealthy at last. Moira is less so, pointing out the severe ethical problems with drugging simple kindly villagers in order to get jewels. Mike orders Moira to be arrested. A storm pops up and since, sigh, Mike managed to persuade the villagers to have the person watching for storm warnings dig for firestones instead, everyone almost dies, except not quite, although Moira is left down in the jail by mistake and almost dies. Except not quite. Things continue to go downhill from there.
On the bright side, during this, Guardian wakes up. (He had put himself to sleep after Olwen’s death.) Initially, this is not that much of a bright side since for the most part he’s not inclined to interfere much, even when things continue to disintegrate—to the point of actual violence.
I must be honest with you, oh readers. My chief disappointment at this stage was that all we got was the point of actual violence. Not, alas, actual violence on Mike, despite the bird meanness, the tricking a colony, the putting his daughter in jail and then not rescuing her afterwards. In fact he gets off scot free—well, ok, he’s not allowed to take the firestones with him, but he does get a robot companion who is programmed to be the perfect friend and companion and is a gourmet cook, so I don’t think he’s suffering too much. Or actual violence on Guardian, who either allowed Olwen to put up a “Come here and exploit us” sign or did it himself and then immediately switched himself off. Or on Roger who falls for Mike’s con out of greed, putting the entire colony in danger.
The only people who do suffer are the colonists, who ended up spending more time digging up firestones then preparing food, so are in for a lean, hungry season, and the leaders of the colony, who lose their positions. Sure, they were easily tricked, and sure, they wanted power, and sure they were about to bring violence to the community for the first time in the colony’s history, but I can’t help feeling a little sad for them given that they weren’t the ones to make the decision to eliminate literacy, education and technology from the colony, and they are the victims that got tricked—while the trickster gets off.
Also, there’s an unconvincing and very short romance between Moira and David, one of the young settlers, which mostly serves as an excuse to allow Moira to stay on Isis and get away from her father.
Sure, life is like this, often: deeply unfair, where the perpetuators get off and the victims suffer for a bit. But it would be nice, I think, to have some acknowledgement in the book that letting the conman more than get away with it, while the rest of the colony suffers is unfair. And that…we don’t get. At least the book offers some hope to the colonists in the end: Moira promises that she will teach them how to read and write, and about the stars and other planets. So there’s that. It’s a nice counter to Hughes’ growing “technology bad, primitive good” pattern. On the other hand, Moira ends up embracing the primitive life, partly because of David, partly because she likes it more, and this is a colony that started out with technology, and abandoned it before, so I have my doubts. Con artists, Isis awaits you.
Mari Ness recovered from this book by drinking a cup of soothing tea. She recommends the same treatment to any distraught readers.