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Monica Hughes is one of Canada's finest writers for children and young adults. Her science fiction - based on the universe that we know using Newton's laws and laws of thermodynamics - is atypical of that genre for young readers where theme and setting traditionally dominate the story line. She contends that "truth of character" should be evident in all fiction, and her works are predominantly stories of characters who are struggling with personal identity, survival and the transformation into maturity.

Her drive for a story is the proverbial "what if . . . ?" What if a person lived underwater or on a planet other than Earth? What if a child must live in isolation? This, a real example from a news broadcast about a 3-year-old condemned to spend his life isolated from contact with others because of his immune system, was the impetus for her most famous trilogy, the "Isis" series.Hughes' latest science fiction, THE GOLDEN AQUARIANS (Simon & Schuster, 1995. 182 pages, $15) is seeking the answer to another "what if . . . " in nature. What if scientists were sent out to inhabit other planets in the galaxy with the sole intent of remaking them to use as resources for our own world.

The year is 2092, and Walt's father is a scientist who has been sent repeatedly to other planets "and changed them into places more comfortable for Earth colonists to live in." Walt has lived with his aunt since his mother's death on one of the excursions, and now his father has sent for him to come to Aqua, feeling that the boy's study of music and poetry is a waste of time.

Aqua is a planet with no known intelligent life forms. The scientific crew will drain the marshes and plant oil-bush for harvesting fuel. But once there, Walt is tripped by a strange string knotted and twisted into a lacy pattern and sees "a green face with wide amber eyes set slantingly under a broad, low forehead."

Besides his curiosity about the mysterious things he sees, Walt is thrown into combat with other students in the Aqua school. He is an outsider - an "Earthee" - and has never had to defend himself over being a colonel's son.

He befriends Solveig, who is also an isolate, and they explore the water terrain, discovering intelligence in the form of snails that chew and destroy the levees and frog people who communicate through telepathy. "It was a wide head with well-marked cheekbones, a flat nose and slanted amber eyes. The pupils were slit horizontally, like those of a horse, which made its face look even wider . . . like dolphins back home on Earth, Walt thought."

Walt and Solveig understand the concern of the marsh creatures. The amphibians' metamorphosing is to cause a tidal wave, which will result in the death of the entire scientific village. The creatures give the message that they have "suffered enough in the defense of our home. Now we have to appeal directly to you. Tell the people who are attempting to destroy our planet who we are. Warn them that they must leave at once . . . we will not show ourselves to them . . . too many have violent and destructive emotions."

Walt and Solveig have six days to convince the crew. The obvious disbelief of the scientists and the rage of Walt's father are a set-back. The weather changes and explosions of marsh gas that destroy the earth-moving equipment only make the colonel more determined to stay and complete the "terraforming" of Aqua.

In a predictable conclusion the scientists are all saved, even the colonel who has complete amnesia, remembering nothing of the fierce conviction of being a godlike figure in the galaxy. That is the weakest part of the story.

There are many strengths in "The Golden Aquarians" that make up for that one flaw and leave this a credible science fiction novel for young readers. First is the passion of the man who, while actually transforming (terraforming) planets makes a mockery of the laws of nature, and in each case the planets became ecological disasters. This rape of the galaxy could happen, and technology-obsessed politicians and scientists could find reason to harvest the planets for selfish gain.

Hughes' portrayal of Col. Elliot, hard, calloused and standing in his ribboned-splendor, even during threat of annihilation, is a magnificent piece of writing.

While her characterizations are strong and become nearly epic heroes, they are never "superhuman." The problems they face are juxtaposed next to personal ones, helping them retain their validity as real people. Walt must face his near-hatred of his domineering

father while following a realization about the impending cataclysm.

Consistent with the strong characterization is the ability for young people to overcome and triumph at a critical moment. This critical time when each surmounts a crisis (quite often caused by adults offstage) propels the young protagonist into a winning location.

The second strength - and another trademark of MonicaHughes - is her description of dramatic settings, the exotic wildlife, the humanoids and intergalactic understandings. Her scientific knowledge is strong, and she has the ability to bring the senses to life in the places she sets her stories: "The sun rose . . . a pale smudge behind the gray cloud cover, and the sky lightened slowly, coloring the reeds and water . . . "

Today with over two dozen successful books, Monica Hughes finds herself with many unanswered "what ifs?" If all of them can be answered in a manner similar to "The Golden Aquarians" her fans will be perfectly happy with at least two dozen more science fiction novels.