Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Tripods

As a youth, I discovered John Christopher’s Tripod trilogy the way I discovered most books, by browsing the fiction section and dismissing everything not adorned on the bottom of the spine with a rocket ship sticker, indicating its inclusion in the Science Fiction genre. (I visited a small town library which didn’t feature a separate Sci-Fi section, or not in the YA stacks anyway.) I had virtually no interest in realistic fiction. A few titles were OK. I enjoyed the realistic novels of Madeleine L’Engle which I found via her better known science fiction and fantasy works. But most realistic YA fiction was either about kids coping with trouble--booze or sex or drugs—or kids’ arguments with adults, usually their divorced parents. I had enough of my own crap to get depressed over, I reasoned, without having to engage in the traumas of a pretend person.

And so I escaped with escapist fiction. True to its characteristic flaws, the fiction that I read was somewhat predictable, and its characters tended to be a little one-dimensional and its themes rather black and white. I could not have cared less. I knew what I liked and that’s what I was going to read. So I judged the Tripod series by its covers, which promised sci-fi adventure. I gobbled up those library copies of The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire, and then I reread them again and again. I doubt I could have voiced just what it was about them that I liked so much. They certainly contained all the elements I looked for in a book: a setting in a world vastly different from my own, a fast-paced adventure plot, fascinating and strange new concepts, and themes of overcoming great adversity while staying true to ones friends. But now rereading them again, thirty years later, I think I understand better what attracted me to them.

The White Mountains, the first in the series, opens with the image of a stolen watch. The watch is a prized possession of Will Parker’s father. The watch doesn’t work, but is an artifact of “the ancients,” people who once knew how to make such things. Will’s world is vaguely medieval, lacking in the technologies driven by the invention of the steam engine and everything that followed. Instead, the lives of Will’s largely agrarian people revolve around a coming of age ceremony called Capping in which a metal net is fused with the flesh of a person’s skull. All this takes place inside a Tripod, a giant machine which strides into town on Capping Day, and draws those old enough to be Capped inside itself. Once Capped, each individual continues with his or her life but becomes completely loyal to the Tripods, stops asking questions about their origin and authority, and ceases to be curious about the world, preventing the discovery of dangerous things like explosives and electricity. For a few, the Capping is unsuccessful, and these people, called Vagrants, are left to wander, mad, about the countryside. Will, thirteen, and rapidly approaching his Capping Day, still has a free mind which begins asking questions. A man disguised as a Vagrant, but wearing only a fake Cap, finds Will, explains to him what the Caps do, and recruits him to escape to a stronghold of free men who are planning to revolt against the Tripods. His journey will take him across a deteriorated Europe, to a completely alien city (The City of Gold and Lead), and turn him from a boy into a dedicated freedom fighter (The Pool of Fire).

The appeal of this transparently veiled metaphor to a young man is plain: all the adults, with their rules and their loyalty to their jobs and their stress over bills are simply tools of the system, brainwashed into accepting a world that only wants to control them. Even today, although most outside observers would identify me as most like the Capped, I strongly identify with the freedom-loving, free-thinking Will Parker and his comrades. (I’m not really Capped; I’m just living undercover.) The story is blatantly one of resistance to the status quo. In contemporary terms, the Tripods represent The Man. And what self-respecting youth doesn’t want to stick it to him?

But what is most intriguing and ultimately most powerful about the series is that John Christopher never leaves the concept of freedom alone, never lets his characters, or his readers take it for granted. Christopher's idea of freedom is distinct from that referenced in country music songs. For Will, the cost of freedom, of free-thinking, of challenging the status quo, is very great; he pays with the loss of his family, his predictable life, several of his friends, his first love, and in many ways his childhood. For Christopher, living freely flies in the face of much of what we desire as humans—the wish to belong, the desire for comfort, the need to self-aggrandize. The struggle for freedom, throughout all of these books is both an external battle against the domination of the Tripods, and an internal one, of Will fighting against his own ignoble tendencies. At one point in the story, Will is offered a life of complete comfort, to be adopted into a family of royalty, as long as he is willing to be Capped. It’s not so simple for him to walk away.

The books are not perfect. The pacing is often uneven and the weirdly formal tone which works so well to help establish the setting sometimes slips into something more casual. Occasionally Christopher’s political messages can get a bit heavy-handed, as when Will discovers the aliens’ collection of beautiful women placed under glass like an insect collection, or when we learn that the original brain-washing of humanity was conducted through television. But for each of these conks over the head, Christopher illuminates other issues—e.g., the weirdness of tourism, and humanity’s own drive to “colonize”—with real subtlety.

Throughout the adventure, Will Parker is a wonderfully flawed hero on which to rest the hopes of mankind. He is often petty and too quick to temper, sometimes childish and even lazy. He is, thus, easy to identify with. A young man will recognize his own flaws in Will (as will a still-seeking adult) even as Will becomes more and more aware of these deficiencies and learns to correct them. At the same time, it is Will’s stubborn, youthful rebelliousness that empowers him. His job, after all, is to help save humanity, as it is all of ours.

See also:
Arthur C. Clarke has written that no trilogy should contain more than four books. This trilogy has a fourth book tacked on to the front, twenty years after the original series. The prequel, When the Tripods Came, details the initial conquest of earth. I have not yet read it.

Sam Riddleburger recently reviewed another of John Christopher’s books, the ecological thriller, The Long Winter.

Cross-posted at http://mrchompchomp.blogspot.com


Andrew Karre said...

It's fair to say these books made me a reader.

Sam said...

I'm very glad you wrote about the Tripods! I hope you won't mind if I agree with every compliment and disagree with the criticisms...

The Masters' use of the girls, for example, is an image that has lasted not only in my mind, but in the minds of others who read the book as kids. Rather than heavy-handed, I'd say powerful.

Of course, if you're looking for disturbing moral ambiguity, you need look no further than Christopher's "Sword of the Spirits" trilogy.

Seth Christenfeld said...

Arthur C. Clarke has written that no trilogy should contain more than four books.

With the Hitchhiker's Trilogy as the exception that (sort of) proves the rule.

A Paperback Writer said...

You know, I never would have thought of the metaphor you came up with for these books.
I read them all when I was in 7th grade -- but that was 1977, still in the depths of the Cold War, and I read them as metaphor for such. Samuel Yowd (or is it Youd? I can't remember, But John Christopher was only a pseudonym, as you probably know), in my mind, was writing a kids' version of 1984, mixed with a bit of the short story "By The Waters of Babylon" in all its post-apocylyptic fineness. I always assumed the message was "watch out for the Soviets; they're trying to take away your freedoms" because that was the underlying message in a good deal of pop culture at that time. (Think James Bond movies and "The Russians ARe Coming")
I was a hater of sci-fi, but I loved these books.
I'm glad I read your take on them. It never occurred to me what post-Cold War kids would make of them. And that's bizarre -- because these books are on my 7th grade reading list where I teach. I'll have to ask my students what they think the "message" might be.
What fun!

mr chompchomp said...

Sam -- Thanks for the comments. The girls-under-glass image works fine in and of itself. But the rest of the imagery regarding the Masters seems more deliberately alien. The museum and the girls were too familiar, directly lifted from human experience and then inverted to make a political point. That's why it came off as heavy-handed to me.

PW -- Thanks for your response. I've heard the Cold War interpretation before and first read these as a kid in the same political environment as you. But I have trouble connecting it. The Masters don't seem particularly Communist to me (they don't seem at all capitalist either). They don't actually seem ideologically driven at all, except in their belief in being superior to humans. Furthermore, it's the rebels, not the Masters, who in Pool of Fire, abandon democracy, albeit temporarily, in the interests of order. So, for me, the whole Cold War paranoia thing falls apart. But maybe I'm over thinking. Anyway, for me it reads much better as a general argument against mindless obedience to any dominant force.

I too would be interested in what the 7th graders would have to say.

Neil Welton said...

I first came across The Tripod books when I was aged twelve in the mid-1980s and, as you can imagine, I remember being fascinated by this strange idea that when you reach the age of fourteen you had to be capped. That this must happen to boys when they finally reach their fourteenth birthdays – before they can begin to think and to reason for themselves. Indeed the Masters even considered capping all boys at the age of twelve, not only to be sure of it, but also because a younger child is less resistant and less questioning. More curious and thus more willing. In the end they decide against doing this as a child’s skull is not yet fully formed or developed. Capping Day is therefore a mandatory annual “coming-of-age” ritual for each and every boy. One in which they must all take part. Thus the head of each son and daughter is shaved before they are all assembled together to be capped. One by one. Every child is proudly presented by their parents as a new slave for The Tripods. As I child I could not understand why parents would do this. Until I realised the parents had been capped when they were children. After being presented before The Tripod, the boy is lifted up gently inside the capsule so that a cap of metal wiring can be successfully enmeshed and embedded deeply into his skull and brain. Interestingly before children are capped they often question it. “Why? I do not see why it has to happen. I would sooner stay as I am.” Indeed what teenager has not said to himself: “I will not believe in what adults believe in. I will rip up the rules of society. I will never conform like them.” Therefore as the child is taken to be capped he must be very gently reassured, encouraged and, most importantly of all, made curious by the adults as to what Capping is. “You can’t understand now, but you will understand after it happens. I can’t describe it. You won’t be hurt. As a person I am happy now.” Indeed when boys are returned to their parents, it soon becomes clear they no longer question as teenagers but are happy and contented adults. Yet another generation of future slaves successfully programmed and educated to serve, obey and even worship the current social, economic and political order. Their new Master. Their God, their Ruler, their State. Sound familiar. I recommend that parents today do encourage their children to read these subversive books. Particularly boys aged twelve.