Monica Hughes’ Devil on my Back opens on a terrifying scene of five boys about to be hooked up to computers. The terror of this scene isn’t the computers, or the horrible food they are served directly before this (bad scrambled eggs and nearly inedible soy toast) but the people around them: slaves with horrible scars from surgically implanted sockets. The boys are thankful that they aren’t women who only think about worthless things.
And oh, yes, if they fail to access knowledge through their own surgically implanted sockets, their memories will be wiped and they will be turned into slaves. By page five, that happens to one of them. By page seven, another.
And if you are thinking that this is about to lead to another anti-technology theme from Monica Hughes, you would be right—but there’s a twist. Spoilers below.
Tomi, who does manage to survive this, is the son of Lord Bentt, the current leader of ArcOne, a domed city built shortly after a major societal collapse, apparently brought on by something called the Age of Confusion, which according to some of the characters started in part because of inefficient learning methods: that is, forcing kids to sit at hard desks for several hours a day and memorize stuff. I feel many young readers will feel sympathetic. ArcOne has established new learning methods: hooking people directly up to computers which implant information into their little brains. Many, as noted, don’t survive. But the general idea is to create a perfect thinking being which will save humanity.
This great plan has one major flaw: the slaves and workers in the domed city, who are not constantly downloading information into their brains, are, to put it mildly, not happy with the system, no matter how many times they get brainwashed and have their memories wiped. Three chapters in, the slaves revolt. I cheered up. Tomi, who has been left completely out of shape by years of learning tranquility and months of having info downloaded into him, immediately gets kidnapped by the slaves. I cheered up again. His now former household slave, taking pity on him, helps him escape through a garbage chute, and he gets covered in garbage. This is not as sad as it should be.
Eventually, Tomi lands on an island, which is initially terrifying. Fortunately, the infopacks he has in his memory, if not always helpful (they suggest, for instance, starting a fire with matches, which is excellent advice if you have matches and not very helpful if you don’t) do help him build a more or less usable raft which gets him off the island. A few poison berries later, and Tomi finds himself in a small village of people who have not shaved their heads. This, he assumes, means they are slaves; the resulting conversation, which includes valid suggestions that just maybe Tomi ought to try the unusual practice of working, does not go well for anyone. But they do offer him shelter and food—if, that is, he works. The aristocratic boy flinches at the thought. And after an abortive escape attempt, he agrees to share his information with them.
They, in turn, give him their version of the Age of Confusion and the building of ArcOne, which serves to clarify that despite all of the lovely forests and rivers and shining stars, this is very much a post-apocalyptic novel, set in a time and place after the entire oil supply had been used up, causing societal collapse and famine, save for the people of ArcOne, who escaped into an underground/domed city.
SPOILER ALERT NOT ACTUALLY TRUE, but we’ll get to that in the next book.
This also turns out to be a yet another example of what can go wrong if you’re too specific with your future timeline: in this 1985 novel, Hughes claims that the world oil supply will be used up by 2005, causing the collapse of the Arab States and then everything else within a few years.
This, naturally, turns into yet another warning from Hughes of the dangers of overpopulation and wasting resources, and her ongoing argument of Technology Bad, Living Simply in a Forest and Doing Everything By Hand Good. By this point, I could accurately predict what would happen next: the simple life in the forest, complete with doing everything by hand, transforms Tomi into a happy and useful person for the first time ever, which would have been all very nice if it hadn’t been so predictable.
But Hughes, to my surprise, does pull out a final twist here when the single saw used by the village breaks. Lacking a forge, let alone raw materials or access to a mine, they are desperate: without a saw, they won’t be able to cut down trees for fuel and housing. Which says a great deal for at least some technology—at least, the metallic sort. Tomi realizes that a replacement axe and other tools can be found in only one place, ArcOne. SPOILER ALERT Also not true, as we’ll discuss in the next post. Anyway, although even in this book I wondered about that, nobody considers alternatives other than trying to survive without a saw. When Tomi realizes that he can also send seeds and other tools, he reluctantly agrees to go back.
I was so astonished to see this book acknowledging the benefits of some technology, even just in the sense of tools, after Hughes’ last few books, that I almost missed the next twist: that Tomi discovers that the one way to bring ArcOne down is to manipulate their dreams—through technology.
In other words, the only way to defeat the evil that is the technology of ArcOne is to use the technology of ArcOne. Mostly, I might add, in the hopes of eventually abandoning the technology of ArcOne to live happily with only a few tools in a forest.
The message was to get still more mixed in the sequel, The Dream Catcher. We’ll get there next week. (And yes, that’s going a bit out of order, but that will also let us do Sandwriter and The Promise together.)
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.