In Monica Hughes’ The Dream Catcher, fourteen year old Ruth lives in what many people would consider a utopia: ArkThree, a post-apocalyptic society of telepaths and healers who live in nearly perfect harmony, sharing work and joy alike, with almost no conflict.
If this sounds a bit, well, idealistic, or even questionable: no, it’s real. These are telepaths, who find that joining their minds together in a great Web brings them happiness and security—and that they can only merge their minds if they remain largely conflict free. Thus, a discipline of pacifism and of sharing the most unpleasant tasks, with even the leaders having to take a turn at cleaning out the latrines now and again. With plenty of leisure time.
But Ruth is unhappy.
It’s not that she hates her home, or telepaths: it’s that she’s easily distracted with dreams of various other things, and she’s worried that as a telepath, she’s terrible. To the point of endangering the entire society. And she keeps dreaming of a red headed girl who wears a simple fur lined tunic, and a few other people alert readers will recognize as characters from Devil on my Back.
Fortunately, although the characters in Ruth’s book don’t have the same Ah-ha feeling of recognition, they are able to tell that far from lacking ability, Ruth is an incredibly talented telepath who is able to reach out to other telepathic communities. This is especially impressive since absolutely nothing in the previous book suggested that any of those characters, including Tomi (the one Ruth makes the psychic connection with) had any telepathic abilities whatsoever. As an added bonus, Ruth also has some skills with telekinesis, making her an Innovator. And she’s about to be part of an expedition to make contact with the community she’s been dreaming of.
Incidentally, I read these books out of order, so let me just say that even without the foreknowledge of knowing just how awful ArcOne is and just how unimpressed they will be by a small gender mixed group of pacifists, I wondered how well this would go. After reading Devil on my Back, I went back to skim this one and congratulate myself on my brilliant thinking.
Since I brought it up, this book confirms that the events of Devil on my Back occurred only 140 years after the great societal collapse discussed in both books. Which is more or less fine for the previous book and does answer my main question of “just how long was that computer running, anyway,” but also seems like a rather fast time period for humans to evolve psychic powers. I found myself immediately thinking of Anne McCaffrey’s Talents universe, which handwaved a similar issue much more effectively by arguing that at least some of those Talents were already in the human population, just unrecognized and untrained, an explanation that worked a bit better for me.
Anyway. Planning for this trip creates a number of issues—the community is completely vegetarian, for one, so hunting and wearing fur is out, though after some conversation everyone agrees that fish isn’t really like meat so some protein might be available along the way. Not to mention the small issue that the people they are heading towards are hunters, though surprisingly, the information that the other group happens to do a lot of hunting doesn’t seem to deter anyone from assuming that this is going to go brilliantly and everything will be awesome even if the two communities don’t exactly seem to be sharing values. ArcThree does agree to keep the welcome group relatively small and unthreatening, so I guess there’s that.
Despite the physical training they do beforehand, their journey there turns out to be extremely difficult and full of danger, almost as if Monica Hughes is trying to argue that a group of telepaths descended from humanities professors who have been trapped inside a dome for one hundred and forty years haven’t learned practical wilderness skills. Ok, she’s saying more or less just that, but this being a Monica Hughes book, they all survive remarkably well, despite some conflict between Ruth and her friend and rival Angela, suggesting, in pure Monica Hughes fashion, that you don’t really need to have practical wilderness skills to survive in the wilderness.
The real problem is when they arrive at ArcOne to find—to their shock—that ArcOne is still using all of that nasty technology. Like electric fences and other things. They are horrified, even as they attempt to remind one another not to judge. (Not judging is a big thing with the ArcThree community.) Ruth and her mentor, the Initiator, also encounter the little group of peaceful village exiles from ArcOne—the same group that Tomi encountered in the previous book. That meeting goes better up until the rest of their group is captured and imprisoned by ArcOne.
Ruth, desperate to help her friends, enters the city—to find Tomi, who explains that his attempt to manipulate city politics by manipulating everyone’s dreams through technology has flat out failed, leaving everyone still miserable and in slavery—except for all of those happy people out in the forests.
Ruth and her friends happily agree to help destroy the great computer controlling the city, since this is a feat that can only be managed by telekinesis, something her group just happens to have. How convenient.
And just like that, we’re back to “Technology and Science Bad! Wilderness good!”
It’s not quite that simple, of course—the telepath community, after all, does use tools and synthetic fabrics and other technology, and most of the telepath group is more than willing to rush back home after their little adventure. And they have created a near utopia with these tools: a communal group of largely happy, supportive telepaths, with no class or other divisions, who have worked out a system of sharing the worst work and the most degrading tasks. I have questions, a lot of them, about the actual, realistic viability of this system, but then again, these are telepaths, who specifically state that merging their minds into a web brings them happiness and security—but at the same time, they can’t merge their minds if they are unhappy or feel resentment. And Ruth is not the only person unhappy or failed by the system.
Beyond that, I’m more than a bit troubled by the insistence that the community relying on books and founded by humanities professors (Arc Three) has a more accurate memory of previous events than the community with a mega-super computer capable of running an entire city including its inhabitants, who are all wearing computers implanted into their bodies, given that both cities were founded by university professors. (And why on earth did anyone think that organizing these cities/domes by academic department, forcing the humanities into one arc, engineers into another, presumably biologists and chemists into yet another would be a good idea, I can’t tell you.)
And I’m kinda saddened that the idea of using technology to solve technological problems was abandoned.
The Dream Catcher does have quite a lot to offer: the intriguing depiction of this telepathic community; the carefully explored friendship and rivalry between Ruth and Angela, arguably a lot more interesting than the differences between ArcOne and ArcThree; and one of Hughes’ very few convincing romances, between Ruth and her fellow gifted telepath, Luke, who helps Ruth overcome her fears. The “girl believes her peers and thinks she has no talent, but ends up being the most talented of all” story is not exactly unusual, but done well enough here.
But in the end, instead of an exploration of the issues of living within a telepathic society absolutely emotionally dependent on pacifism, no matter what its members think, or even a clash between the opposing viewpoints of pacifism and militarization, this turns out to be yet another argument against the use of technology and computers, and an argument for everyone to return to a simpler, technology free existence in the woods.
I’m not completely against this idea, but beyond the problem that it seems to be a somewhat idealistic version of both farming and hunting/gathering—it also seems to ignore just how much technology can do—not to mention how many current farming and hunting techniques depend upon technology.
Moreover, it strikes me as a very able-bodied argument. Technology and materials science brought us ultra-light wheelchairs, pacemakers, hearing aids, eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs and other assistive devices used daily by billions of people around the world. I couldn’t help but notice that nearly everyone who ends up in these woods is young and healthy, with excellent eyesight and no hearing issues. The one exception is easily cured by a few weeks in the woods. That’s all awesome, but leaves out the rest of us.
Which is to say, I’ve hit the age where I don’t think that we can all run off to the woods to be happy. I’ve gone camping. It’s great. But it’s not for everyone—especially those of us who like the benefits of technology. Not just the assistive devices, either, but the printing press that brought us Monica Hughes’ books.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.