When Tripods Walked the Earth: John Christopher’s Tripods Trilogy

Delighted with how much I still enjoyed reading the Prince in Waiting trilogy, I decided to re-read the Tripods books next. I’m sorry to say that they have not aged as well. They are earlier books of course, John Christopher’s first venture into YA territory. The White Mountains is 1967, The City of Gold and Lead also 1967, and The Pool of Fire 1968. (I haven’t read the prequel, because it came out after I was already grown up, and I felt quite strongly that they didn’t need one.)

What’s brilliant about them is the atmosphere — Earth has been invaded by aliens, and the aliens have made all the adults into adoring mind-slaves. Boys (not to mention girls) are “capped” at thirteen, before that they can think for themselves. Christopher gives us the story of a boy who runs away and joins the resistance against the aliens. It’s very cleverly literalising of an archetypal “I don’t want to grow up and become boring like my parents.” It also has excellent details about the aliens, their culture and plans. My favourite book remains the middle one where our hero, Will, goes into the city of the aliens as a slave to discover more about what’s really inside those mysterious and powerful tripods.

Even when I was ten years old I noticed the absence of females in these books. They were one of the first places where I did notice that, because of the weirdness about it. Give me a first person boy hero to identify with and I was happy, but there’s a particularly horrible thing here. Halfway through The White Mountains, Will meets an actual temptation — a chateau, a beautiful daughter of the household, an offer of knighthood and happiness if only he accepts the cap. The girl, Eloise, has been capped already, and is taken by the Tripods because she wins a beauty contest, and that persuades Will to continue to run away. In The City of Gold and Lead, Will wins a competition of strength and becomes a slave in the city. He eventually sees Eloise’s dead body preserved in a collection he compares to a butterfly collection. Eloise is practically the only named woman in the trilogy, certainly the only significant one. The staggering unfairness of this got through to me — boys get to have adventures and girls can only be pretty and dead? Forget that! For once I parted company with the narrator’s emotions. This is hard to overlook.

While I’m noticing faults — the books are much shorter than they are in my memory, and the eventual victory is much too easy. The Masters won in the first place by using the Capped against the free, and that tactic would absolutely have worked again and there’s no reason why they don’t do it around their last remaining city in Panama. Christopher is telling a much more conventionally shaped story here than in the Prince in Waiting books, a conventional story in which the hero has to win. Oh well. The very end, which recapitulates the setting up of the League of Nations, works surprisingly well.

These books are written in first person, and again in Will we have a hero who is less than perfect. He doesn’t have the subtlety of Luke, but he’s impetuous and doesn’t get on well with people. He’s also entirely immersed in his world and takes it for granted, while explaining it to us in a way that’s quite comprehensible to a child reader. These two trilogies were some of the first SF I read and they are part of what taught me how to construct background by putting together clues. They are really good on that. In The City of Gold and Lead, when Will goes into the city of the Masters he encounters things that are strange to him while being familiar to us — like light switches — while the breathing apparatus and gravity machines are equally strange to us. I remember the delight of reading this for the first time, and also coming back to it as I read these books over and over.

They are full of wonderful moments and images — being caught off a running horse by a tentacle, the heat and gravity of the city, the dystopian world of happy low-tech slaves. The “capping” itself is very clever. Nobody wants to grow up to be their parents, and adult concerns can seem very dull to a pre-adolescent. Here’s a mechanism that explains why grown ups never have any fun and simultaneously gives your rebellion a perfect justification. They really are mentally enslaved by aliens! It doesn’t stop them being good people, as far as they are allowed, but it explains their sheeplike nature. You’re never going to be like that! You’re going to destroy the aliens no matter what it takes! I suspect this universally appealing message may be why these books are in print while the much better Prince in Waiting books are not.

I enjoyed reading them again out of nostalgia, and I did find myself getting caught up in them despite remembering everything about the plot. If you read them when you were a child, you’ll probably enjoy reading them again, but I can’t honestly recommend them to anyone who hasn’t read them. They’re not really books for adults, and I’d be reluctant to give these to children now because I think the gender attitudes are the kind of thing that does shape people’s subconscious expectations. The world pushes too hard on the “boys get to have adventures, girls are just pretty” side already. I know Christopher was born in 1921 and the books were written in 1967/8, and I am making allowances for that, but I’m old enough to be able to do that. 


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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