Friday, January 30, 2015

Hiero's Journey, Chapter by Chapter

From November 2012 to November 2014, your Humble Narrator devoted much of this blog to a chapter-by-chapter takedown of Sterling Lanier's campy, under-appreciated science-fantasy classic, Hiero's Journey. For those just discovering this timeless treasure of online criticism, and for those wanting to re-read the whole series (and the voices in my head tell me you're out there), I offer herewith a hyper-linked* table of contents:

Chapter One: Welcome to the seventy-fifth century. Also, Gorm the Bear bites evil S'nerg in the jahooblies.

Chapter Two: Flashback, with water weasels.

Chapter Three: Hiero's mutant foes have evil toys.

Chapter Three, Cont.: The Dweller in the Mist offers Hiero Unspeakable Sexytime

Chapter Four: A damsel-in-distress turns out to be an early draft of Foxy Brown.

Chapter Five: Luchare tells her story. Plus, the EUMs return, this time with a lightning gun.

Chapter Six: We spare a little pity for Chee-Chowk, the Hairy Howler Red Shirt.

Chapter Seven: There will be ruins, and giant lampreys.

Chapter Eight: In which we learn that the Catholic priesthood has changed a bit by the 75th century.

Chapter Eight, Cont.: Enter Aldo and his giant fish.

Chapter Nine: Brother Aldo brings out Captain Gimp. Lanier piles on the action scenes.

Chapter Nine, Cont.: Hiero and the Gimp trade insults with some pirates.

Chapter Ten: Ohio has become some sort of giant mutant nature preserve.

Chapter Ten, Cont.: Of necessity, there are dryads.

Chapter Eleven: The House has a good leer in Hiero's brain. 

Chapter Eleven, Cont.: The Going Rate is one golden torc. Also, our gang finds a mysterious bunker.

Chapter Twelve: Your humble narrator has an Infocom flashback. Will he be eaten by a grue?

Chapter Twelve, Concluded: Hiero plays Last Man Standing.

Afterword: Is HJ the first draft of D&D?


* Boy, there's a term I never see anymore. Yr. Hbl. Narr. is getting old.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Problem of Freedom in John Christopher's Tripods Trilogy

The Tripods series, which I reviewed in my previous post, owes much of its appeal to a compelling central message: Freedom is Hard. Staying free of the alien Tripods' rule brings protagonist Will Parker and his friends neither honor nor comfort. Instead, the Capped, mind-controlled humans view them with suspicion, the Tripods try to capture or destroy them, and even if they elude enslavement they are excluded from such benefits as human civilization can offer. In The White Mountains, John Christopher uses Eloise to symbolize these benefits and their allure: Eloise, though Capped, is pretty and charming and offers Will a place among the landed gentry of post-invasion France. At least, she does until she decides to become a sacrifice to the Tripods. (In the television series, Eloise is played by Charlotte Long, who with rather unpleasant irony died in a car accident a few weeks after the BBC shot her scenes.) Will and Jean Paul and their fellow free men trade the comforts of home and hearth for a Spartan, fugitive life in the mountains, under military discipline and with little expectation of beating the invaders. This kind of dystopian realism appeals, I think, to bright and disaffected adolescents, but it raises an important question: does freedom carry any benefits that justify its huge costs?
In the trilogy, Will and his friends are too busy fighting the alien menace to ask this question, and Christopher himself only proposes a few answers to it. Free men control what Orwell called the few inches inside one's own skull. They don't have to share their most intimate space with an alien intelligence. Free men feel no desire to offer their children to the Masters as slaves or trophies, though Christopher's free men do have to steal children (or near-children) from the settlements of the Capped: they can apparently only increase their numbers by recruiting 13-year-old runaways.* The free men can also express an emotion, curiosity, that the aliens have denied to the Capped, which in turn allows them to ask hard questions about their social environment and to conduct scientific research. As in our own world, however, only a few actually do so: John Paul becomes a scientist, and Henry, in The Pool of Fire, travels to North America and learns there to regard humans as a single race rather than separate nations. (The Masters have preserved pre-invasion languages and nationalities to keep their human subjects divided.) Apart from Henry, though, the free men mainly value science as a source of more powerful weapons and vehicles, both necessary to fight the Tripods but dangerous once the Earth is free and human aggressiveness towards other humans reasserts itself.

Christopher makes this point in The City of Gold and Lead, when Will's Master tells him that pre-invasion humans could build bombs powerful enough to destroy entire cities. Will, focused on his spy mission, can't think far enough ahead to realize that such bombs could endanger more than the Tripods. Christopher returns to this point after the final defeat of the invaders, when the Council of Humanity collapses in nationalist bickering. But Christopher more or less ends his story there. What I wish he had done is explore Henry's discovery: that freedom means emancipation from more than one kind of mental slavery. If freedom is symbolized only by the raised fist, the flung grenade, or the ruins of an enemy city, how can it become compatible with the kind of peaceful and civilized life most of us want to lead? Does freedom mean more than merely smacking one's enemies about? If we were to ask Henry, he might say that freedom means the freedom to travel, to learn about other cultures and their ways of living, to realize that one's own ethnic group does not hold a monopoly on wisdom, and to recognize that people can choose nonviolence. John Paul would probably say freedom means the freedom to research subjects that are not immediately useful, to discover new facts and create new things beyond the ken of a docile, pre-industrial culture. Will, I think, would say that freedom means the freedom to be alone – to have privacy and solitude. His final decision to join Fritz and John Paul in creating a new league-of-nations movement represents a greater sacrifice than Christopher was able to articulate. 

In fairness, I don't see how the author could have written a compelling, action-packed YA novel about cultural exchange and diplomacy in the aftermath of a defeated alien invasion. I think this would make an intriguing storyline, but not for young people. Peace-making is primarily work for adults. As Faisal said at the end of Lawrence of Arabia, "The virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage and hope for the future," while "the vices of peace" - and its benefits - come from the labors of the old.

* This sounds creepier out of context than on the page; it is difficult to find even faint sexual allusions in Christopher's early YA novels.

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.