Monica Hughes “The Isis Trilogy”: The Canadian Dystopia

Monica Hughes was one of Canada’s most prolific writers of for children, publishing over 40 books in Canada, England and the United States which were then translated and sold all over the world. While she is such a prolific writer it is her science fiction and dystopia which are particularly noteworthy, when she is unrestrained by reality her pen seems to come to life. She has won over a dozen literary awards (again mostly for Sci-Fi and Dystopia) – including the Vicky Metcalf Award and the Canada Council Price for Children’s Literature (twice! also, now called the Governor General’s award). After her death in 2003 Hughes’ body of work has been given more critical attention and in 2011 the Monica Hughes award for Science Fiction and Fantasy (won by Rachel Hartman for Seraphina in 2013!) was established.

I think what is so fascinating about the few science fiction works that I have read by Monica Hughes  – Earthdark and The Isis trilogy, is her unique ecological perspective – these works linger on a concern for nature and fundamental importance that the environment has in the world’s she has created. I’ll just be talking about the Isis books as they are her most popular and I enjoyed their story, their themes and their social commentary. Science Fiction and dystopia are essentially oriented towards social criticism and Hughes’ works in particular criticize contemporary (well, 80’s – early 2000s) humanity’s relationship with the earth. Indeed, she has spoken about it several time in interviews saying that “I’m concerned that children think about the future of our planet” (Interview w/ Joan Malcolmson 33) and in an interview with Frieda Wishinsky, Hughes says:

The environment… is an abiding passion. I was interested in it before we all knew there was such a great problem. Maybe that’s because I’ve had moments of epiphany in the bush, in central Canada, and in the mountains. The idea that we’re mucking up the whole thing is terribly sad and makes me angry. Environmental themes… sneak into my work all the time. (21)

Book one of Hughes’ trilogy is The Keeper of the Isis Light (1980), which follows Olwen Pendennis, who is the title Keeper of the Isis Light a ceremonial role that gives her a sense of responsibility for and a close relationship with the planet Isis. She and her robotic companion, Guardian, have lived alone on the remote planet Isis since the death of her parents – each day Guardian sends updates on the planet’s status to Earth. It becomes clear, if not to Olwen herself, that they are safeguarding the planet for human colonization. The point of view is very close to Olwen, her experiences and attitudes reorient the reader’s vision of what is beautiful in either a person or the natural world. The reader isn’t given a physical description of Olwen but Olwen’s physical appearance doesn’t seem as important as the exotic nature of her planet. It is only when we are told more than once about the missing mirrors of her home that we are alerted to the question of appearance. Hughes carefully builds our sympathetic perspective towards Olwen and Isis to alert us to her underlying lesson about prejudice, a lesson that links all the novels.

When the settlers arrive from Earth they have a clearly oppositional view of Olwen and of the planet she is bonded with and represents, however the reader has become too much invested in Olwen to allow their vision to erase the powerfully positive image already in place. It is revealed later that in order to help Olwen survive much of her physique had to be altered, Guardian has had Olwen wear a suit to protect her from the acidic air and human disease, but in truth, she is being protected by human prejudice. Our close link to Olwen and the planet turns the settlers’ fear of the alien itself becomes alien to us. The ugliness of prejudice strikes us that much harder when it is directed towards someone whose beauty, both physical and inward, has been so carefully constructed for us, and by which we are completely convinced. Once her true appearance is revealed her relationship with the colonists is shattered, despite her help and friendship she is shunned and eventually banishes herself to live with Guardian in the mountains.

Guardian is an interesting figure in the novel, throughout I had this doubt – how does he know the humans will react with prejudice? In some ways doesn’t he also have prejudice by hiding Olwen’s true self from them, he is expecting them to react negatively, but he is also fostering that reaction by disguising Olwen. Nonetheless that is what happens. Guardian is, ironically, a far more “human” character than the colonists, if humanity is defined by compassion, love, and wisdom. The author’s refusal to allow the community to recognize its faults or Olwen to become reintegrated into the community leaves us wondering about the settlers’ fate, and about Olwen’s, who may never find the human love for which she has longed. Hughes’ prose paints a vivid portrait of Olwen as a well-developed, strong, and appealing character who, despite her painful coming of age, faces her disillusionment with humans in a dignified and admirable manner.

The sequel occurs years later in The Guardian of Isis (1981), the planet remains pristine and remote, even after the arrival of settlers from Earth. Over time, the settlers have abandoned the technological knowledge of their ancestors and replaced it with myth and fearful superstitions. Prejudice has lead to ignorance, fear, and to a dictatorial patriarch holding absolute power. A dystopian community has arisen in which all curiosity and the urge for exploration are suppressed, and the second-class status of women is actively encouraged. The male Guardian – who was dismissed as an outdated machine in the first novel – is now revered as godlike and called “Shining One”. Olwen, on the other hand, been mythologized as a dangerous monster and referred to as “That Old Woman” or “The Ugly One”.

Jody N’Kumo is the young protagonist of this text, he questions authority and history, and he quests for the truth. He is curious and longs for technological innovations to improve the quality of life. This, of course, leads to his becoming an outcast from his community, even (actually, especially) when he proposes to save them from a natural disaster. Jody eventually meets up with Olwen and the Guardian and learns the truth. Together they save the settlers, but the ending is still not ‘happily ever after’ and remains ambiguous and Jody promises not to reveal his encounter with Olwen and Guardian but returns to the community with the intention of improving the social conditions and enlightening his people – however, he knows that he cannot outright challenge the autocrat.

While Jody is an engaging teenage rebel who vows to “lead his people out of their narrow valley and show them the rest of their world,” The Guardian of Isis lacks the power and passion of Olwen in the first volume. Instead of focussing on the land and human nature, this text focuses on the abuse of power that arises from uninformed and narrow-minded leadership and the serious consequences of resisting change.

The final volume, The Isis Pedlar (1982) has Jody’s nephew, David, cooperating with Moira and with the reawakened Guardian, who had silently guarded Olwen’s grave, to stop newcomers, who want to exchange their “technology” (actually just trickery) in exchange for power on Isis. Guardian assists the young people and finally resolves to leave Isis with the troublemaker, thereby allowing Moira to stay on Isis with David. In promoting the capable and intelligent Jody N’Kumo finally to the rightful leadership of the settlement, Hughes concludes the trilogy on a hopeful note. However, there are echoes of pessimism and Olwen is never redeemed by the community and Guardian is no longer stationed on Isis… Isis is left in the hands of humans, it is guardian-less.

Hughes refuses her audience any easy certainties in this often negative examination of human nature. In a theme that has been picked up in more recent dystopian novels the rebellious young who question prejudice, the uses of technology and who challenge accepted truths, are in the minority and they must often pay a heavy price for their rebellion. These young rebels are also often closely tied to nature and are the guardians of Isis, or the Earth, while the adults are at a distance from nature and often depicted as ignorant. Indeed, it is interesting that the “Guardian” of Isis is actually an incorruptible robot and not a human at all. So, while the knowledge that there is some compassion and independent thinking possible in humans offers a hopeful resolution to the trilogy, one must question how safe Isis now is in only the hands of humans.

Reading the series made me think of the many landscapes of Canada and how beautiful it is, it made me think of colonialism and it made me think of the many negative impacts humans have on the Earth. It is a reminder of how powerful and relevant literature can be when it addresses universal themes and introduces admirable and fascinating young people.

3 responses to “Monica Hughes “The Isis Trilogy”: The Canadian Dystopia

  1. This is a brilliant analysis of the series. I just finished reading the Isis trilogy and I really enjoyed the first two books. I loved how the environment had such a strong character (at times, it also felt like an extension of Olwen’s character). It’s interesting when I think of the contemporary YA sci-fi I’ve read and compare how the environments are portrayed. Perhaps, its different because the drama in those books are centred on closed cities, spaceships or wasteland versions of Earth. In those books, the greater focus of the story is usually on the human tensions/social problems. I think Isis had a great balance in connecting that natural beauty (and its past and potential environmental issues) with the shades of human social problems and pessimism you’ve talked about.

    I agree that Guardian is definitely one of the most interesting robot characters I’ve read. I love the irony/paradox of reading characters that are supposedly less human than others.

    • Thank you!

      I really enjoyed the series!

      My thesis actually focuses on the portrayal of the non-human environment (so tech and nature) in YA dystopia. I’m having a blast writing it. ^_^


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