John Christopher, 1922-2012

I was sad to hear that John Christopher (Christopher Samuel Youd) died this weekend at the age of eighty-nine. He was best known for his cosy catastrophe novels, especially The Death of Grass (1956) and for his YA “Tripods” trilogy (1967-8, prequel 1988), set in a world where aliens much like Wells’s Martians have conquered Earth. I never met him, but I’ve been reading him since I was ten years old, and I can quote Beyond the Burning Lands (1972) the way some people quote Pilgrim’s Progress.

Christopher was English, and of precisely the age and class to understand the cosy catastrophe movement viscerally. His strengths as a writer were solid science fictional extrapolation and powerful atmospheric imagery — there are moments in all of his books that will always stay with me. His skills at extrapolation shouldn’t be underrated because they were used so often in the service of the catastrophic. His cosy catastrophe premises could be absurd, but the consequences were always worked out in plausible and effective detail.

While the cosy catastrophe was a thriving genre in the fifties he kept writing them — eight of them in the decade before 1965. The World in Winter is about a swift new ice age, A Wrinkle in the Skin is about a plague of earthquakes, The Year of the Comet about a comet hitting Earth and so on. All of them have middle class English narrators who miss civilization. These books sold extremely well in their zeitgeist moment. He also wrote a few science fictional thrillers in this period. They are also full of catastrophic consequences.

In the sixties Christopher turned to writing YA science fiction. He helped shape that genre and was in many ways the precursor of modern YA dystopias. Most of these books are about boys becoming men in post-catastrophic worlds. He was very good at writing their points of view immersively and showing the reader a strange world from inside the perspective of somebody who took it for granted. They were published by Puffin and widely available. For me and for a number of British readers these books were among very early science fictional influences. Reading them helped me expand the possibilities of the kinds of stories it was possible to tell, and even more, the ways in which it was possible to tell them. Even writing for children and young people in the sixties and seventies he took the worlds and the characters seriously and never talked down to the reader.

Some of Christopher’s cosy catastrophes have been republished as YA, as Wyndham’s have. It was his 1977 novel Empty World that caused me to realise that adolescents were the natural continuing readers of cosy catastrophes. In Empty World all the adults and little children die of flu and the world is left to a handful of teenagers — this is so viscerally adolescent wish fulfillment that reading it (at twenty-two) I failed to get off the train and was carried on to Liverpool.

I’m sorry I never had a chance to tell him how much his work shaped my imagination.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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