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John Christopher's Tripods trilogy
by Keith Brooke

You have this series to blame for everything.

I can trace both wanting to be a The White Mountains by John Christopherwriter and that more subtle moment of realisation that being a writer was actually a possibility to first reading the Tripods books back when I was about ten or so. I suppose, being rational about it, it's not strictly true that this series is responsible for my writing career: if it hadn't been these books, it would have been something else -- the Heinlein YAs, Asimov, Tolkien -- but the fact remains that it was these books.

The Tripods trilogy -- The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1967) and The Pool of Fire (1968) -- is set in a future at least a hundred years after the Tripods took over. These three-legged monsters tower over trees and buildings, marching around the land and even across the sea on their long, articulated legs. They might be intelligent robots, they might be vehicles containing some unseen alien enemy -- their nature is one of the mysteries of the series. They are rumoured to hunt and enslave humans, but for the most part, they seem content just to remain in control of a pacified humankind. They do this through the most chilling feature of this future world: the Capping. In their fourteenth year, all humans are gathered up by the Tripods, their heads shaved, and a cap of metal wiring is embedded in their scalp. After Capping, a child has become an adult. After Capping, a child has become something other than what they were, something controlled, The City of Gold and Lead by John Christophersomething less.

These books pressed all the right buttons for me when I first encountered them.

The rite of passage, something central both to so much adult SF and also to so much young adult fiction, is boiled down into this wonderfully symbolic event: the Capping. As a ten-year-old I was on the same side of that divide as our protagonist Will Parker: adulthood approaching, so much in the way of change approaching, and here it was, in an adventure story, symbolised by the Capping, the event after which one becomes adult, responsible, constrained, dull.

But unlike almost everyone else, Will refuses to meekly accept this and fights back. He doesn't want to be like other people, he doesn't want to lose who he is, and so he goes on the run, picking up like-minded friends along the way as he seeks a foreign land where the Tripods don't rule.

The like-minded friends bit spoke to me, too. There's little that's two-dimensional about these books. Will and his two fellow-travellers, Henry and Beanpole, are real people -- real adolescents. Their relationships aren't easy, with jealousy, misunderstanding and rivalry all mixed in. Leadership of the trio depends on circumstances and on who is currently in or out of favour. Will, in particular, while he has taken the lead much of the time, also tends to become the outsider of the three, and they all make The Pool of Fire by John Christophermistakes. He also makes for a particularly rounded hero in that, while clearly capable of heroic acts, he is also prone to rash mistakes and consequently is sometimes forced to stand on the sidelines while more reliable individuals take the lead.

Oh, how I loved the idea of breaking out from all the constraints of childhood and doing what I wanted to do, in my own way! And oh how I recognised that if I ever did so, the ups and downs of friendships and rivalries and misjudgements and all the other business of being a child growing up would still intrude. The Tripods trilogy offered both fantastic escape and a reminder of the truth of how things really are.

Also, these books offered relentless adventure. How could they not, when we have three teenagers travelling long distances through territory controlled by an all-powerful and deadly foe? The tripods make fantastic villains, with their mind control, their size, their relentlessness. There's one phrase in The White Mountains that is truly, truly chilling:

"The Tripods are coming."

For much of this first book, the tripods have loomed threateningly at a distance, but now ... they are coming after the boys.

A few days ago, I re-read the first book in the trilogy. I did this with trepidation, having re-read other fondly-remembered books that have turned out not to live up to the memories -- I'd put off this re-reading for a long time for just that reason. Subsequently, I re-read the remaining two novels in the series.

In my re-readings, I realised three things:

  1. In at least one way, the Tripods trilogy is even better than my recollection: it reads extremely well to me as an adult reader, which is something I couldn't possibly have known -- or even have cared about -- all those years ago. These are short books, and I re-read each in a day, and nowadays I don't often find books that I just have to carry on with until the only sensible place to halt: the end. I could quibble that the ending of the first book was a bit sketchy, that the tying up of a major loose end in the final volume is just a bit too easy, that the way society has reverted to a rather rose-tinted feudal arrangement would have benefited from a bit more justification, but hey, this series was a really good read!
  2. It reminded me of just how much of a debt I owe to the author. As I said at the start of this essay, it was in reading these books that I started to form vague ideas that I'd like to try to do some of the things John Christopher did in these pages and that, maybe, if I was good enough, I might be able to find an audience. But the Tripods trilogy was more than that initial spark: the critical thing Christopher does here, the latching onto that moment in childhood when, despite all the constraints of being in a world controlled by aliens (okay, adults), you still have immense freedom, with the future spread out before you, is something I've tried to do in a variety of ways in a lot of what I write, and have written, throughout my career. Of course, Christopher isn't alone in tapping into that moment, that spirit, but he stands comparison with the very best.
  3. Words really can scare. "The Tripods are coming" -- four words that thoroughly chilled me a few days ago when I read them again. Four words that took me back thirty years to when they first chilled me, to when they first opened up the possibility that something awful was going to happen and that, just possibly, if Will, Henry and Beanpole got everything exactly right, they might overcome all the dangers and threats and keep clinging onto their freedom for at least a short time more. Some of us are still trying to cling onto that freedom.


availability

The White Mountains by John Christopher The City of Gold and Lead by John ChristopherThe Pool of Fire by John Christopher

The most recent editions of the Tripods trilogy I can find were published by Simon Pulse in 2003:

  • The White Mountains (mass market paperback, 208 pages, first published 1967, this edition April 2003, ISBN: 0689856725)
    ...The White Mountains from amazon.com / amazon.co.uk.
  • The City of Gold and Lead (mass market paperback, 224 pages, first published 1967, this edition April 2003, ISBN: 0689856660)
    ...The City of Gold and Lead from amazon.com / amazon.co.uk.
  • The Pool of Fire (mass market paperback, 224 pages, first published 1968, this edition April 2003, ISBN: 0689856695)
    ...The Pool of Fire from amazon.com / amazon.co.uk.

These appear to be out of print now, but secondhand copies can usually be found - try Alibris. In a time when so many classic science-fiction novels are being republished, someone really should do so for the Tripods!

A prequel, When the Tripods Came, was published in the 1980s to tie in with a TV serialisation of the original trilogy. While this one is an entertaining read, it's nowhere near as substantial as the main three titles. I'd recommend it, but definitely not to read before you tackle the original trilogy.

A good selection of John Christopher's adult titles have been re-issued by Cosmos Books.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

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© Keith Brooke 2006


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