Feb 21 2012 6:00pm

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.

Walker White
1. Walker
It is funny that you mention the lack of females.

I remember in the 1980s that these were serialized in Boy's Life, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts. Coincidence?
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
I also recall these books fondly from reading them when I was around 10. I also recall trying to re-read them around 22 or so and being not so enthralled.
Eloise being "butterflied" is fairly shocking and not at all fair.
Ian Tregillis
3. ITregillis
I'm one of those who came to these books via the serialization in Boy's Life, and who didn't enjoy them nearly as much when I reread them as an adult (just about 3 years ago).

I still remember how this story thrilled youngster-me. It didn't hold up under rereading for most of the reasons you mention, though part of me still has a fondness for them.
4. AlecAustin
City of Gold and Lead was also my favorite of the books when I was younger and would re-read them every few years - I think largely because of the genuinely alien elements of the city of the Masters, as well as the relationship that Will strikes up with his Master before his escape.

I guess I must have been a very well-socialized 8-year old when I read The White Mountains, because the teenage rebellion aspect of capping totally passed me by. At the time I read it, I felt kind of weird about Will bringing the bully from his home village with him, and the way that character achieved redemption via self-sacrifice in The Pool of Fire struck me as cheap. And still does, now that I think of it, though for different reasons - I think it would have been less pat for him to survive so Will and co. would have to keep on dealing with him.
Brian R
5. Mayhem
Interestingly I came to these first from the 80s BBC TV series, which was broadcast in NZ. I remember them being very much like the old Dr Who serials, all scary and hide behind the couch type watching. I then had to read the books to find out what happened because they never made the third one into a series.

The lack of females in the books never really registered when I was young, probably because there were some in the series, and I just overlooked them not being in the books. Christopher himself from a review I read a few years back said that one of the reasons for the lack was "a commonly held view in children’s publishing that girls would read books written about boys, but not vice-versa, so there had been no pressure to include major female characters"
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Mayhem: That girls will read them seems self evident, as I read them when I was a girl.
7. Mouette
I think I remember the prequel better than the original trilogy; I liked it a good deal, back when I read these, but I have no trouble believing they haven't aged well. But that image of Eloise pinned like a butterfly did stay with me.

Though as a young reader, I wasn't sure if she was dead, or in some sort of preserved stasis state. I'd always thought it was the latter, but looking at it from an adult perspective, of course it's the former.
8. formflow
I loved these books as a teenager. They were the first science fiction books that I really enjoyed and they opened the doors for me to explore other great SF. (Speaking of which, is there an Ender's Game re-read coming up?)

I have often heard that boys did not like books with strong female leads, but I remember in my teens enjoying Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Secret of NIMH, To kill a Mockingbird, not to mention the Dragonriders of Pern books.

I cannot imagine teenage boys now not being drawn in by books like Hungar Games, Mistborn, Warbreaker, or Wings by A.P.

My teenage daughter, by the way, seems to have an easier time relating to Harry Potter than Hermoine. When they were younger my daughters would fight over who got to pretend to be Hailey Potter.
john mullen
9. johntheirishmongol
I read these a long time ago and remembered liking them, but when I found one at a used bookstore a year ago, I didn't care for it nearly as much.

Now, when I was young, and I had much more time to read, I would read anything. Under 10 years, that included the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, but when I finished those, I did read Ann of Green Gables and a few other of my sister. A few years ago, when we were driving around eastern Canada, I had to go see Prince Edward Island and was shocked to find out my wife had never even heard of the books. So I got them.
Brian R
10. Mayhem
Oh I agree, I was just saying that Christopher justified it as a commonly held view in publishing in the 60s & 70s. Pretty much leaving females out entirely is rather excessive though.
Certainly by the time I came to read these in the mid 80s, almost all the other significant childrens works had prominent female characters, although they weren't always human.

Hmm, must go dig out my old Douglas Hill books again, the Huntsman series was in a similar vein to the Tripods from memory.
S Cooper
11. SPC
Now I'm scared to re-read them again, but I have this trilogy to thank for becoming a science fiction reader. I also saw the BBC adaptation as a child (and yes, hid behind the couch) and read the books dozens of times. Oddly, the lack of female characters doesn't seem to have really registered. A lot of my middle-school creative writing was pretty blatantly influenced by The White Mountains - rediscovering abandoned cities made a huge impression on me - and my personal website (before the word "blog") was titled The City of Gold and Lead for years.
12. Narmitaj
Unfortunately, and ironically given the above (dead but preserved, "butterflied"), the actress playing Eloise in the TV version was killed in an accident on the M4 before the series was first even broadcast. It was mentioned by the Thatcher-era politician Alan Clark in his Diaries; see a short quote here. They'd been filming Tripods at his house, Saltwood Castle, just three weeks before her death.
Sky Thibedeau
13. SkylarkThibedeau
I have the series and started reading a chapter a night with my 8 year old before bed when I read here that John Christopher had passed away. I'd forgotten how good they are.

I noticed there is somewhat of a homage to the series in a scene with Tom Cruise in Speilberg's remake of "The War of the Worlds" which echoes a scene in the "White Mountains".
Cathy Mullican
14. nolly
I found these as a child, in the library while at my grandparents' house during the summer. It's odd, as we didn't usually go to the library while visiting them. Like others, I loved them then, and the lack of girls din't bother me at all -- the fact that a boy was the one doing something never made me think that a girl couldn't do it, too.

I'm a little scared to re-read them, now.
15. Mea
Jo, you perfectly captured my reaction to the books. Thanks for an enjoyable re-read. I enjoyed them as a child (in the 80s) but the girls-get-butterflied annoyed me on first reading and the series felt dated on re-reading. But I also feel like defending the books, since i enjoyed them so much. It helps that i was also reading books with strong woman leads and characters, and in some ways the sexism in this series is another aspect of the repressive dis-utopian society created by the aliens(and the author) After all, patriarchy is a classic tool of oppression. Or so was my somewhat unarticulated thinking. I also read Joanna Russ at too young an age to fully get her (what so you mean that the shipwrecked passengers don't get rescued?!?!), and against a backdrop of more varied reading there is something to the absence of strong women characters in the dis-topia - the world has been enslaved, so why would I expect the women of pern to be running around? I also sort of assumed that off-stage somewhere, there were also girls running away before capping.
Pamela Adams
16. PamAdams
I'm finishing up my re-read, and my reactions are similar- I can see why I enjoyed them so much, but my adult self can also see the flaws. I wouldn't say they're at the 'suck fairy' level, nor that other readers should resist re-reading.

I was most disappointed in When the Tripods Came, perhaps because I didn't have childhood readings to bolster me.
Skip Ives
17. Skip
I also picked up the books after reading the graphic retelling in Boys Life, and it started me on my love for the genre.

My mother always disparaged my SF books as "adolescent trash for boys" regardless of the book though, so that blade cut both ways. I would riposte by pointing out all her mysteries on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, and she'd smile. I'd always ask her for a recommendation of what to read and she never failed me for poetry, novels or mysteries, but she never understood my love for SF and Fantasy.
18. Lsana
I noticed the lack of girls when I read these books, but I don't think it really bothered me, per se. It was a lot like Tolkien: I'd have liked to see more women, but it was still a great story.

I never saw Eloise's fate as particularly sexist. Rather than an endorsement of the "women should be ornaments" attitude, it seemed more like a condmenation of the Master's who held that attitude. It was proof that even the best of them was so far over the Moral Event Horizon that you couldn't even see it from where they were.

As for the "girls will read/watch stories about boys, but boys won't read/watch stories about girls," it's an attitude that's alive and well today; the failure of Princess and the Frog was blamed on that. As to whether or not it's true, I'm not sure. The first half is, but as a girl, I can't really say about the second half. I know my husband avoided all the Disney Princess movies as a kid because he thought they were too girly, but he did love the Little House books, so my evidence is mixed.
19. nancym
I don't really remember the lack of female characters bothering me much either as a 10 year old reader, and I loved these books to pieces. But that was 40 years ago, shortly after they were written, and unfortunately that was pretty common then.

Now Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy, Island of the Blue Dolphins... and many more whom I have forgotten- they filled my need for girl characters in books. I would just leave this trilogy in my memory now, no need to read again.
20. Stefan Jones
I feel less inclined to do a re-read after reading these comments, but like many these books were incredibly influential.

I now recall reading the books out of order -- City of Gold and Lead last. That one was a blast. The Masters seemed quite capable of being jerks, and were politically divided. Maybe they were too busy squabbling as their cities fell to mount a resistance?

I'd totally forgotten about Eloise's fate. I recall thinking she was interesting in the first book . . . a capped person who wasn't a monster, and fairly sympathetic.
21. jennygadget
"The staggering unfairness of this got through to me — boys get to have
adventures and girls can only be pretty and dead? Forget that!"

Indeed. I adored this series as a kid and they are so brilliant in many ways, but even at age 11 Eloise's fate creeped me out in a way that I couldn't articulate at the time. There was something very disturbing about it all - not just about what happened to her, also but Will's reaction - that seemed more sinister than just "girls aren't important enough to be heroes."

I agree, also, that this makes it difficult to consider suggesting them to younger readers today, despite how much I loved them myself.

@Lsana: and here I thought they blamed it on the princess not being white. * sigh *

@Mayhem: I find it interesting how he phrased that. The first part is a reason to exclude girls and suggests there was pressure to do so. But when he does mention pressure, it's regarding the lack of it with respect to including girls. These aren't really the same thing.

Also, assuming his understanding of the social climate of the time was accurate, I wonder who the industry thought was reading A Wrinkle in Time - besides award committees, of course.
Beth Mitcham
22. bethmitcham
I think the final ending has a lot more to do with why this one is still in print while The Prince in Waiting is not. Happy endings are a lot easier to swallow, and this one ends with the men winning. Never mind that it looks like they will mess it all up anyway...

The middle one is my favorite as well; I don't know if I've reread the final one in decades.
23. hobbitbabe
I was thrilled to find them reprinted at one point (15 years ago?) because they'd been library reads for me. I'd forgotten the author and changed libraries, so I didn't read them again in my late teens and 20s - my memory of them is informed by being young enough that I found the trapped-in-the-city part really frightening as well as compelling. I didn't know that the Ozymandias thing was a quotation from something else, either.

I won't be recommending them to my sister and nephew for reading aloud because of what happens to the girls, but I'll read them again myself, because of everything it brings back about how I read them the first few times as well as because of the words that are actually on the pages.

Besides, The City of Gold and Lead feels almost as evocative for me as a phrase as Beyond the Tomorrow Mountains.
24. Teka Lynn
On rereading the trilogy, I realized that I would have been somewhat happier if we had seen a moment where the Comte and Comtesse got some closure on what happened to their daughter. Will doesn't even seen to consider the fate of the women worth mentioning in his impassioned debriefing speech. And no women AT ALL in the Resistance? That beggars belief.

The pacing and characterization in general is a bit off at times. Will admits that he was wrong about Henry, but we never get a scene showing a reconciliation, or how he realized he was wrong in the first place. Will's fairly insensitive in-story, however.
25. Maki
Just came across this after a reread and completely agree. Even as a child the unfairness was clear and evident (not a single girl in the Resistance? Because all major fightbacks against oppressive regimes have clearly been all-male *rolls eyes*) and what actually struck me the most- even more than no girls in the Mountains, Eloise butterflied etc etc, was the really rather nasty little dig at the beginning.

Ozymandias profers the theory to Will that the Vagrants are those whose minds are too strong to take the Capping and thus break. Within a few pages is the reminder how few female Vagrants there are. So right from the very beginning it's 100% male-focused on the idea that the strong resist Capping and run from it, and women generally just bow to it. Really set the tone for the rest of the book.

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