“It’s progress,” said Frank definitively. “And you can’t stop progress.”
At a certain point in her life and career, Monica Hughes most definitely became interested in stopping progress—or at least, persuading many of us that progress was not a great idea. From exploring initial concerns of overpopulation, exploitation, and resource depletion, but maintaining hope that people could continue to find joy in such places, her novels gradually became calls to return to less technology based, smaller societies. (Often, I must add, by the happy expedient of just happening to find a nice unpopulated planet with plenty of oxygen and water and soil.) Space Trap, though focused largely on aliens, is one of her novels exploring that attitude shift.
As Space Trap opens, young Valerie is depressed to be asked to take care of her little sister Susan yet again, especially since her older brother Frank has been allowed to have much of the fun. Hughes’ commentary on casual sexism and gender roles remains sharp, but before this can be explored much further all three of them get kidnapped by aliens which is one way to settle the housekeeping chores.
Unfortunately, the aliens—almost immediately labeled as popeyes by Valerie because of their eyestalks, like thanks for making fun of personal appearances, Valerie—turn out to be less interested in saving kids from unwanted housework and more interested in displaying all three of them in zoos or using them for scientific study.
The somewhat lucky Valerie ends up getting sold to Dr. Mushni—lucky in the sense that since she isn’t a very interesting specimen—like thanks for keeping the girl’s self-confidence up, Dr. Mushni—her chances of surviving a zoo aren’t great. Less lucky in the sense that Valerie is now a slave, allowed out only on short walks with Dr. Mushni while wearing a collar and chain. And very less lucky in the sense that Dr. Mushni is only a linguist without much grant money; after eight days of studying Valerie’s use of Intergalactic, he will have to try to sell her, or terminate her. Fortunately, Valerie manages to persuade him that he’ll get much more use out of her if he studies her use of her original language, English. He agrees that this might in fact be enough to get him a grant—which he does, within eight days.
(As an adult, I read that and felt a burst of jealousy and admiration for any culture able to handle its grant application process so quickly. Ok, ok, sure, this is also a culture that keeps sentient creatures in cages in zoos or enslaves them, but they have worked out their grant application process! Let’s give them a big hand!)
What Valerie really wants is to go home, but Dr. Mushni points out with some justice that sending her home is just too expensive—just like sending exotic animals home from zoos is too expensive for her home planet. I can’t help wondering, if he knows about zoos on earth, exactly why he seems so ignorant in general about humans, English, and the amount of food humans need, but that is perhaps a nitpick. Valerie has a different reaction: she protests that she’s a person, not an animal. Dr. Mushni wants to know who would determine that, pointing out—again with some justice—that he might be regarded as an animal on her planet. After all, Valerie has been calling him a popeye throughout the book.
I half expected elephants or dolphins to get mentioned here, but no: having made the rather anvil like point, Hughes drops it, moving on, not raising questions like the ability to speak, or making a comparison to the way humans in our not very distant past placed “exotic” humans on display. But moving on.
The linguistic study gives Valerie a bit more time, but she’s still a slave. Things get worse when she discovers that her brother has ended up in the zoo, but a bit better when she discovers that Dr. Mushni also managed to pick up various parts of a robot. As it turns out, the robot, Isnek Ansnek, is not overly interested in helping out human kids. (If you are sensing an Isaac Asimov brick joke here, give yourself a round of applause.) He’s particularly not interested in helping kids who cry, since that can make him rust, but he’s eventually persuaded—he’s not really a hard-hearted robot. Working together, they manage to escape, rescue her brother Frank, and run into a moving tree. Also some other escaped aliens.
We need to leap over the multiple plot holes here, notably the linguistic ones—made worse given that one major character is a linguist—the idea of 24 hour days on a planet with a binary star system (blink and move on) and the idea that Valerie and the alien Fifth Daughter just happen to be facing the same gender/sexism biases back home, which given how very alien Fifth Daughter is seems rather, well, convenient. And pretty much everything involving the robot.
And Valerie is the type of character that readers will probably find either deeply aggravating or deeply satisfying, mostly because she’s a girl who somehow manages to outsmart all of the alien adults and comes up with almost all of the escape plans. (Sometimes the robot helps.) As an adult I found this, well, implausible. As a kid I would have loved this: it’s basic ten year old wish fulfillment.
But what is less wish fulfillment and more authorial concern is the not all that subtle undercurrent against science. Here’s what we learn about the Evils of Science:
1. It leads to child/parent resentment, and makes parents often fail to realize that they are not treating their children equally, to the point of being easier and more supportive of the boy than the girls, even though the girl is the one capable of doing robot science.
2. The parental neglect caused by focusing on science can cause your children to fall into teleportation traps and get tortured by aliens.
3. Scientific study often leads people, aliens and human, to become obsessed with money.
4. Scientific study harms and tortures the very things studied.
5. Scientists can become so obsessed/focused on their studies that they will miss the pieces of depressed robots in their utility closets. Also the giant sentient forests that eat people, aliens or otherwise.
6. Scientists are cruel.
7. Advanced technology can, even will, make you selfish and lazy: the true joy can be found out in the wilderness, with only the basics, forced to hunt and gather your own food and make your own clothing and weapons. Fortunately, a small group of people can easily find and make everything that you need.
I snark a little, but not about point seven. In previous books—particularly Earthdark—Monica Hughes had presented a positive view of technology, one that offered hope not just of human exploration in space, but solutions to the issues of a growing world population, adjusting to new, marginal environments. In The Keeper of the Isis Light, she had taken a more skeptical view; by The Pedlar of Isis, she was arguing for leaving an entire colony in basic ignorance (while certain less innocent and ignorant people happily soared off to space adventures) and a low technological level even after this same ignorance and low technology had left them wide open to exploitation, and nearly led the entire colony to starvation.
And here, she has her young heroine, who started the book out with hopes of being a scientist, who could, as her older brother points out, have a successful career in robotics, who could, as other characters point out, do almost anything she wants in science, end the book thinking that technology and science makes people selfish and lazy and cruel, with the strong hint that this will not be her career path. This anti-science trend was to become still stronger. But we’ll be getting there.
Mari Ness likes the sort of progress that has led to excellent lattes. She lives in central Florida, close to a cafe that specializes in that sort of progress.