Tuesday, June 2, 2009

When the Tripods Came, by John Christopher

Before I even get started today, let me just say right here and right now that I am against brainwashing. No matter how good it might make you feel, being brainwashed is something you want to avoid. It’s better to be tormented by confusion but have your own ideas than to become some sort of blissed out zombie with spinning spirals for pupils under the complete control of an insidious master. I hope that’s clear.

When the Tripods Came is John Christopher’s belated prequel to the original series (which I reviewed here). The whole series, in large part, is about brainwashing, and just how bad it is. Though what it means to be brainwashed is something that seems to be open for discussion. Or it seemed to be, anyway, before the prequel existed.

The prequel was inspired, according to the preface, by critics who complained of the story being implausible. Even a few years after the publication of the books, real human technology had advanced so rapidly that fictional Tripod technology looked rather primitive and even silly by comparison. So, how would the Tripods have taken humanity over so easily?

It’s curious that Christopher felt the need to answer these critics. Juding dated science fiction on its plausibility is a little like complaining that 80s fashions looks dated in the year 2009 (oh, wait).

But the author composed an answer anyway. It turns out that the Tripods began their conquest of Earth slowly and rather unsuccessfully. When the Tripods Came opens with two boys, Laurie (short for Laurence so don’t make fun of him) and Andy (short for Andrew, duh) on a camping trip in England who witness a massive (several stories high) Tripod’s initial exploration of our planet. The Tripod mirthlessly destroys a farmhouse, abducts a man, kills a dog, and battles some tanks before jet fighters swoop in and nonchalantly demolish it. Two other Tripods are sighted elsewhere in the world and meet similar fates.

The Tripod technology, then, did look a bit silly to humanity whose long history of warfare had given them quite a few tools with which to engage an invading force. “They didn’t even have infrared!” hoots one of Andy and Laurie’s teachers in a post-invasion classroom discussion. Humans expend much energy patting themselves on the back. There’s even a television show, from America, called the Trippy Show, dedicated to satirizing the Tripods. It acheives wide international success.

It’s so successful, in fact, that a cult begins to form around it and by the time anyone realizes that the audience is being brainwashed by television (imagine that), it’s too late. Communes of TV-hypnotized “Trippies” form to welcome and defend new invasions of Tripods. The Tripods extend their mind control powers by hard-wiring human brains through the use of Caps, and soon their conquest is, more or less, over. Christopher’s answer, to his critics, is that while their weapons of mass destruction may have been primitive, the Tripods understanding of the human mind and human culture gave them what they needed to take over the planet.

Now, my review of the original trilogy gave a general, and I think, generous reading of the Tripod allegory. I claimed the Masters represented authority and that the uncapped represented free-thinking youth. In the comments that followed, A Paperback Writer proposed that the books were a kind of Cold War* propaganda, and that the Masters represented Communists. I didn’t like that reading because I find propaganda insipid by definition and I thought the Tripod series was too interesting and engaging for that.

But maybe I was fooled. While I think the generous reading is still the better one, and the one that may allow the series to remain readable and interesting into the future, its hard to argue, after considering When the Tripods Came, that Christopher did not intend the Masters to represent Communists. There are a number of passages in the novel singing the praises of “individuality” and “freedom”—obvious anti-communist code words. And the countercultural references to “Tripping” (drug use) and “Trippies” (hippies) make it difficult to imagine that Christopher had a lot of warm feelings for tie-dye wearing vegetarians who were often associated with the propagation of socailist/communist ideology in the West. The mass gatherings of Trippies also look a lot like the countercultural protest movement. (Groups that gather in large masses appear from the outside like people brainwashed by common ideology, even to those looking at them while nestled within the warmth of a large mass.)

Does that make When the Tripods Came, or the rest of the Tripod series, Cold War propaganda? Maybe. If you let yourself read it that way. You could instead focus on the things it has to say about the demise of the nuclear family, which I didn’t get into here, but which are actually rather subtle and touching. Or, you could just read it as a ripping good sci-fi saga. Which it is.

The problem, of course, with propaganda is that it’s an attempt to brainwash the reader. And, as we’ve established, brainwashing is to be avoided. So even if the propaganda is against brainwashing, it’s brainwashing that’s against brainwashing. So I’m confused. And tormented. But my mind is free.

*If you weren’t around for the Cold War, let me give you a brief summary. There was the Eastern Block (or Bloch), led by the Soviet Union, which wanted to create an empire in the name of Communism (often considered evil, but on its surface about sharing) and there were the Western countries, led by the United States, which wanted to form an empire (but claimed they didn’t) in the name of Capitalism (which is supposed to be good but on its surface is about selling things for more than they’re actually worth). The two sides really really wanted to blow each other up, but were very nervous about accidentally blowing themselves up in the process.

Crossposted at Critique de Mr Chompchomp


sisterstu said...

so i should stop trying to brainwash you then? it's not working anyways.

so you think this holds to the test of time overall then?

what set of social circumstances is most currently coded in sci fi as the cold war was in the sixties-eighties?

mr chompchomp said...

The original trilogy I think will last. It taps deeply enough into boys' psyches that I think generations of readers (of a certain sort at least) will continue to find it. As for the prequel . . . it's best read after the original trilogy, and then it's optional, I think. Still good fun, though.

I think you find lots 9/11 coding in sci-fi today, or movies anyway. Best example off the top of my head is Cloverfield, wherein the monster is huge, seemingly mindless, thoroughly destructive and utterly inescapable.

Chris said...

Heck of a review. I taught this novel years back to my 7th grade class. Wish I'd had this insight back then!