Feb 6 2012 12:15pm

John Christopher, 1922-2012

John Christopher, 1922-2012I 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.

Jennifer Fiddes
1. junefaramore
He was a master of POV, at least in the Tripods books, which I have read every year since I was twelve. At least he lived a full life. Thank you for the discussion of his other books, I became so attached to the Tripods books I've never looked for the others.
Skip Ives
2. Skip
It is sad to hear of his passing, John Christopher was my first SSF author.
"Boys Life" did a graphic serialization of the Tripod books in the 1970s, and it made me find the books and science fiction as a genre. He, Andre Norton and Susan Cooper got me hooked and I never looked back.
Rancho Unicorno
3. Rancho Unicorno
I read the Tripod series in fifth grade (the first of the trilogy for class, the others for fun). They were the first SF books I ever read (before that I had focused on non-fiction and fantasy). I remember being thrilled when I stumbled upon the prequel in the library - it had only been out for a year or so and was an incredibly lucky find. I still had my book report, complete with giant tripod and alien props in one piece and got to act out the story while I read it.

Based on my conversations with others, there is one good thing about Mr. Christopher's death - this may thrust him into the conciousness of readers who have never heard of him (a group that includes all of my friends). As it is, I think I shall have to pause our Hobbit readings to to bring The White Mountains to the bedtime stories of my son.
Rancho Unicorno
4. a-j
Sad to hear. In the '70s the Puffin edition of The Guardians was a favourite of mine. Set in an authoritarian, rather than post-catastrophe, future with an excellent boy-to-man story with an ending that, in a way, pre-figures the end of the Hunger Games trilogy.
Sky Thibedeau
5. SkylarkThibedeau
The first PBS program I ever saw was a book review of "The White Mountains" where the reviewer drew scenes from the book. I was captivated and imagine my suprise when I found the trilogy in the library at school.

Christopher was my first big kids author and his works will always have a warm special place in my memories and my heart.
Rancho Unicorno
6. Stefan Jones
I somehow assumed that "John Christopher" quietly passed away years ago.

I recall he'd written a prequel to the Tripod trilogy in the '80s, and hadn't heard anything since then.

I read the Tripod books starting in third grade. I was utterly gripped; I remember reading the final book late into the night when I got my paws on it.

The Guardians was also deeply influential. I remember thinking about it just the other day, maybe 38 years after I'd first read it.

Well, RIP and thanks for the memories, Mr. Youd.

OH! Interesting trivia. Remember the short story adaptations of Star Trek stories that James Blish churned out in the early 70s? In the adaption of "Tomorrow is Yesterday," he has Spock scanning the history databases for the name of the pilot the Enterprise transported out of a crashing pursuit plane -- John Christopher -- so they can better decide what to do with thim. Paraphrasing: "There was an author by that name, but that was a pseudonym." An interesting shout-out from one SF author to another!
Pamela Adams
7. PamAdams
His work, especially the Tripods series, made an excellent gateway drug for those young readers who might not otherwise consider science fiction.
Pamela Adams
8. PamAdams
Sorry, double post. What was that about a Tripod prequel?
Rancho Unicorno
9. Aussiesmurf
I remember reading the "Prince in Waiting" trilogy when I was around 10-11. The idea of a truly 'flawed protagonist" and the bittersweet ending were mind-blowing to me - until that point, I'd really been existing on a diet of David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, Dragonlance and so forth.

I also enjoyed the Tripod trilogy, but found the protagonist much less interesting. Also I found the idea that the end was 'tragic' to be a little flawed, given that the alternative was, you know, EVERYONE DYING. I more intriguing conclusion would have been the resolution of the choice of a gilded cage or warring freedom.

RIP, Sir.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
I'm re-reading the Prince in Waiting books right now, expect a post on them soon.
Rancho Unicorno
11. beerofthedark
The Prince In Waiting trilogy as a single edition was a Xmas present when I was about 11-12 and I remember having finished it by the end of Boxing Day, having avoided most family activities to read it instead. I can still remember how disconcerted I was by the ending which didn't fit into my notions of how stories should end. I don't have that copy anymore, but I think I shall have to acquire a copy again in the near future. Look forward to your post on it Jo.
Rancho Unicorno
12. HelenS
I apologize to Mr. Youd for confusing him with John Wyndham for so many years. They did both have a lot of disasters, and there was the triffid/tripod thing, but... well, it was dumb of me anyway.
Bruce Wilson
13. Aesculapius
Jo, thanks so much for posting this - it brings back such evocative memories of reading the Tripods and Prince in Waiting in the early Eighties; things I haven't thought about for years. Think it's time to dig these out and re-read them!

The John Christopher series were a huge part of expanding my literary horizons and developing a taste for sci-fi and fantasy. I think I must have monopolised our local librariy's stock of all his books, alongside writers like Nicholas Fisk and Harry Harrison (I'm sure Spaceship Medic influenced my eventual career path!).

I remember very clearly the sense of anticipation waiting for the BBC adaptations of the Tripods books. Somehow the TV series never quite lived up to the fantastic imagery of the books - but I still have the vinyl 45 single of the show's theme though...! I think I secretly preferred Prince in Waiting though - can't wait to see your thoughts on these!

John Christopher - thank you so much for your amazing books!!
Rancho Unicorno
14. CLS
Terribly sad news...almost as sad is how hard these books are to find now. A brilliant, brilliant writer. I'm really looking forward to your review of the Sword of the Spirits books, Jo. They absolutely devastated me when I read them in high beautifully heartbreaking. And that ending to the series! I can still remember the final words of the final book, they were burned right into my brain and haunt me to this day!
Rancho Unicorno
15. Albatross
Thanks for this post, John Christopher's books were very important to me as a young SF reader.

For those who asked, here's a link to the Tripods prequel, "When the Tripods Came":
Rancho Unicorno
16. Colbie
The Death of Grass a 'cosy catastrophe'! Have you read it? Possibly one of the darkest, bleakest depictions of the end of the world ever written. It features multiple rapes, countless murders, brother turning against brother, and pretty much the end of everything.

I read it after reading The Road and it felt like the perfect prequel - watching civilzation fall apart in a little under a week.

There is nothing cosy, there are no 'tea and crumpets', in The Death of Grass.
Aquila G
17. Aquila1nz
The Death of Grass is not cosy, nor are various parts of a number of his other books, but I understand nevertheless why Jo uses the term.

Last month I stumbled, quite by chance, on A Wrinkle in the Skin. A John Christopher I'd never read! Nor even realised existed! Post-apocalyptic! It's a strange book, a little uneven, I'm aware of the very male viewpoint in a way I wasn't when devouring them all as a teenager, but for the crossing of the drying Channel floor alone, it was a wonderful find.

Like others here, it hadn't occurred to me he was still alive.

When I told my mother he'd died it was as "the guy that wrote the Tripods", but for me he was much more than that one trilogy, he was a lesson in genre, and a huge part of why I love post-apocalyptic settings.
Rancho Unicorno
18. Dreadpiratk
I remember getting yelled at in school for reading the tripods books in class when I should have been paying attention. I found a boxed set of them at a thrift shop a few months ago, and although my boys are all sadly too old to be read to, I'm tying to covince my 7 y.o. daughter they are not 'boy books' so I can read them to her.

The Prince in Waiting series were by far my favorite books, next only to Susan Coopers The Dark is rising possibly, at least until I got into high school and discovered Donaldson.
Rancho Unicorno
19. walkerp
One of my favourite authors. I hope his passing will awaken a new generation to his books. I'm surprised that more people are not making the connection between his young adult books and the recent resurgence in post-apocalyptic themes in today's YA fiction. I would also strongly recommend fans of the PA genre to check out his adult works as well. You will see how wrong the "cosy" appellation is for his work. I would recommend The Possessors as well if you can find it, a contemporary horror/sci-fi that is quite enjoyable.

RIP, Mr. Youd and thanks for all your work.

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