Saturday, January 3, 2015

Aliens Enslave Earth, but English Teens Will Save Us

When John Christopher (ne Samuel Youd), who wrote over seventy books in his lifetime, died in 2012, obituarists principally identified him as the author of the acclaimed young-adult series The Tripods. This trilogy certainly gave Christopher his widest exposure: the constituent novels have been translated into seven languages and adapted into a comic strip (in Boys' Life) and a BBC series. Written in clear, spare prose, and maintaining a healthy balance between plot, dialogue, and exposition, the Tripods novels gave adolescent readers an accessible entree into a dystopian future, long before dystopia became the default setting of young-adult fiction. At the same time, Christopher refused to talk down to his readers. He allowed them to deduce on their own, from clues left by the main characters – letters on decaying old signs, mysterious objects found in ruined cities, fragmentary stories told by half-mad travelers – how the world of The White Mountains (1966) and its sequels had come into being.

What they discovered was alarming: the slightly mysterious pre-industrial world of protagonist Will Parker was the creation of alien invaders. A race called the Masters (identified as the Tripods' builders and pilots in The City of Gold and Lead [1967]), had conquered our own world and enslaved its inhabitants with mind-control implants. These implants, which Will and his contemporaries called Caps, curtailed humans' curiosity, free will, and technological ambition. Only a handful of men learned the truth about their world before they reached the age of fourteen, when the Masters implanted their Caps; if they wanted to resist their fate, they had to go on the run, becoming outcasts from settled human society. Will and his friends Henry and Jean Paul decide to join the ranks of these free men (it would have been a short series if they had chosen otherwise!), and the trilogy follows their exploits as they flee to the rebels' mountain fastness in Switzerland, help infiltrate one of the Masters' cities, and try to find a way to defeat humanity's conquerers. By the start of the third novel, The Pool of Fire (1968), readers have learned that the free men face a very difficult struggle. A tiny, fugitive minority fighting a hugely powerful alien foe, they are also weakened by their own personal flaws, like protagonist Will Parker's short temper and inferiority complex. Humans must not only defeat the Masters; they must also, as Christopher observes by the end of the series, overcome their own failings if they hope to survive. If this sounds trite, it was nonetheless a message young people needed to hear, and Christopher delivered it far more gracefully than I have done.

Modern critics of the novels have noted that John Christopher had his own failings as an author, with which he did not in this case successfully grapple: his sexist indifference to women and his middle-class English ethnocentrism. As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, Christopher had written earlier dystopian novels for adults, in which female characters mainly figured as victims. I don't think he was a misogynist – women in his novels are real people, and usually fairly intelligent ones – but he doubted they could flourish in a devolved, post-collapse society that placed a premium on physical strength and viciousness. In the Tripods trilogy, women are almost non-existent, and Christopher's one important female character, Eloise, serves mainly as an object lesson for Will Parker, warning him about the dangers of civilized life under the heel of the Tripods. The author's ethnocentrism is less obnoxious, but when non-European characters appear in the Tripods novels they do so as cliches and stage props. Middle Easterners are religious fanatics who worship the Tripods, East Asians (whom Will once calls “little yellow men”) are soft-spoken and mysterious, Americans are “taciturn” and sunburned. Christopher, to his credit, addressed both of these defects in his later YA novels. Strong, if not always sympathetic, female characters play prominent roles in Wild Jack (1974), Empty World (1977), and the Sword trilogy, while Christopher included a Japanese main character, Sunyo, in Wild Jack and a fairly sophisticated treatment of the Aztec culture in New Found Land (1983). I agree with Jo Walton, though, that rather than make excuses for a mid-century author's prejudices and limitations, one should only recommend Christopher's YA novels to adults, who can make allowances for the author's chauvinism. Certainly I enjoyed them more as a young adult than as an adolescent, though with age and time I have found additional, thematic problems with the Tripods trilogy that wouldn't have occurred to my earlier sci-fi geek self. Those, however, can wait for a later entry.

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