The Tripod series, John Christopher’s classic science fiction series for young adults, remains scarily relevant to our current times, despite some dated elements.
I know, I know, the last time I wrote about a classic SF series, The Pliocene Exile, I listed all the reasons that it’s generally a waste of time to revisit classic SF. However, it’s the pandemic, I came across a copy of The White Mountains in my son’s bookshelves and couldn’t resist.
The four books, The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, The Pool of Fire, and the prequel, When the Tripods Came, (published in 1988 almost two decades after the others), were quick reads, clearly aimed at readers ages ten and up. They were also available at my local library.
Exploring them was time well spent. Why?
At their heart, the series is about conformity, about how hard it is to break cultural norms that persist despite being harmful, and how easy humanity can be manipulated by propaganda.
Insight Into Humanity’s Worst Instincts
I first tackled the prequel, When the Tripods Came, having never read it before. I expected a story of humanity’s valiant but futile fight against the alien invaders before their inevitable defeat.
That is not this story. It’s a far more chilling story of how humanity defeated itself.
This slim volume details the initial alien invasion by three Tripods, monstrous machines that seem to have little regard for humanity. After some probing and some horrific actions by the machines, the military destroys all three.
Clearly, all will be fine. Humans have the weapons to defeat the mysterious aliens.
Instead of force. the aliens who pilot the massive Tripods orbiting the Earth manipulate humanity with television propaganda. Soon, there’s a popular television show about the Tripods with the underlying message that the aliens will be helpful to humanity. Soon, many humans come to accept this propaganda as truth.
1988 was before the rise of the internet. Fox News only came into being in 1996. CNN had been founded in 1980 but largely featured breaking news. Yet, the story of When The Tripods Came, of how humanity was slowly but cleverly overcome by lies that are accepted as truth has so many parallels to today.
In the story, some instantly look to the Tripods as something to believe in. They rationalize their worship of these clearly unknowable and demonstrably antagonistic beings as inspirational and idealistic.
In the final blow to human civilization, those that worship the Tripods insist everyone do the same.
It’s a story of how propaganda and brainwashing can spread like wildfire and overcome humanity.
It does have a SF element. In When the Tripods Came, the Tripods are sending out subliminal signals to brainwash humanity into accepting the Tripods as overlords. In real life, we know that brainwashing doesn’t even need subliminal controlling messages, that it only seems to require constant repetition of lies that people want to hear to assuage their fears.
The humans who worship the Tripods create caps with mechanical brain controls to turn others into their way of thinking. At first, these caps can be removed. Several generations later, during the time of The White Mountains, they’ve evolved into the steel caps grafted to skulls that are given to every teenager who’s reached a certain age.
Aliens invading Earth? Not terribly scary.
Malevolent aliens using televised propaganda to literally brainwash vast numbers of humans into accepting an alternate reality? That’s so on-the-nose to our current situation (hi, Qanon) that I almost wondered if Christopher had a time machine.
But this plot seemed to have been the result of criticism of the original novels, as Christopher said in an interview in 2009:
At some point during the first series, the Beeb did a discussion thing which included Brian Aldiss as a panel member. Brian started by saying he didn’t like ‘backwards-looking science-fiction’ anyway, and then went on to pour scorn on the notion of the Tripods being able to overcome late 20th century human technology. ‘They don’t even have infra-red’, he observed caustically, presumably referring to the use of searchlights in tracking the boys. (This is an interesting example of the built-in obsolescence characteristic of SF; when I wrote the books infra-red was laboratory stuff, and no one would have predicted that sixteen years later you would use it casually to switch channels on your TV. The first remotes – do you remember? – were in fact photo-optic). Anyway, I did recall that the improbability had concerned me even when I was writing The White Mountains, and that I had dropped in a casual reference to TV being used as the chief instrument of conquest. So I went back and developed that. Incidentally, in both cases there’s yet another harking-back to thirties US magazine SF – a story about someone achieving a hypnotic conquest of the world – through radio …
So, criticism of the concept led to Christopher refining and inventing a way that it was plausible for the Tripods to conquer humanity without a great battle.
Christoper was a prolific writer. Indeed, “John Christopher” was just one of the many pen names of Sam Youd, a British SF author who lived until 2009 when he passed away at age 89. I encourage you to read the whole interview linked above, as it provides insight into his other works and had some good advice for writers.
The Tripods Series: Why It Works
The reason the stories still work is an obvious one: they’re well-paced, engaging, and fascinating. The first book, The White Mountains, is about Will and his cousin Henry’s journey from England to a place in Europe called the White Mountains, where the last vestige of free people survives.
It’s a dangerous trek, especially for 13-year-old boys on their own, with no allies, and with everyone around them a potential betrayer.
Once in what was France, they pick up a third, an inventive boy named Jean-Paul who they dub “Beanpole.” Beanpole is the nerd of the group and is fascinated by the machines once used by people. So, basically, we have the regular kid (Will), the jock (Henry), and the nerd (Beanpole.)
The changing dynamics among the new friends are almost as much a danger to them as the Tripods, especially when Will begins to feel left out. That leads to his doomed infatuation with a defacto princess and his unwitting betrayal of his two friends. But they patch it up, escape the Tripods, and find the stronghold.
It’s a journey story, a good one, with enough change of scenery to engage even adults.
The City of Gold and Lead is the best-written of the trio, as it takes Will and another boy into the city of the dreaded Tripods, where they serve as slaves to the aliens in order to spy on them. It’s an eerie, claustrophobic book, filled with descriptions of the strange alien city and burdened by the artificial gravity that slowly and inevitably kills the boys that the aliens take as slaves.
The aliens are complex. Some are horrific masters who beat the boys. Some want to learn from them and feel humans have something to offer. But the difference turns out to be small: the “good” ones simply want to preserve some people in their version of a zoo, while the “bad” ones just want to kill them.
In the last of the trilogy, The Pool of Fire, the remaining humans gather together to attack the three Tripod cities in a near-suicidal plan to rid the planet of its alien overlords.
It’s a desperate and almost foolhardy attempt because the remaining free humans, existing in pockets here and there all over the world, know that more Tripods are coming to terraform the Earth to make it livable for the alien species that is so far confined to the cities and their Tripod machines.
The terraforming will, of course, destroy most native life on Earth, including people.
The trilogy is tense, well-placed with some great SF elements, and features ordinary teens doing extraordinary things because there’s no one else to do the job.
Humanity Fights Itself
The Pool of Fire, the finale, isn’t a rollicking victory over the aliens.
Coordinating the attacks means those in countries all over the world must learn about each other, even though contact is limited by having to sneak around the Tripods. Luckily, the Tripods don’t travel over water, so the coordination takes some time but is eventually successful.
The three Tripod cities, each with artificial gravity and atmosphere, are attacked at the same time, and their central batteries destroyed in two of them.
But it takes the sacrifice of one of our main characters to destroy the third city. The grief sends Will into self-exile as he attempts to absorb all that’s happened.
Worse, the bickering among the victors starts right away. Instead of continued cooperation and a world government, humanity reverts to nation-states once more. The story ends on an uneasy note, with Beanpole and Will determined to unite people. But it’s by no means assured that they’ll succeed.
It’s a very bittersweet ending to what’s essentially a children’s story.
There are echoes of this ending in the more recent Hunger Games trilogy, in which dictators are overcome by the main characters, only for the threat of a new one to arise. Christopher, at least in this series, seems to believe that peace is tenuous and can be shredded at any moment by people reverting to their worst instincts.
The Tripods Series: The Flaws
The Tripods series is not without its’ problems, mostly from being a product of its time. It’s not actively sexist. Indeed, in When the Tripods Came, the unreliable teenage narrator eventually sees the worth of his stepmother and his little sister. The grandmother also is independent and resilient.
One wonders if Christopher saw the problem and decided to include more women between the end of the original trilogy in the late 1960s and the prequel in 1988.
However, the main characters are all men or boys and they have all the agency, while the few women are in supporting roles.
The main female role in The White Mountains is the princess who seems to lead a charmed life, at least until it’s revealed she’s meant to be taken to their city by the Tripods. This is supposed to be a great honor and happens after a medieval-style tournament where champions are chosen.
The princess is an interesting character, someone trapped in a role. But she remains trapped and never escapes. In one of the most chilling sequences in The City of Gold and Lead, the reader is led through the Tripods’ “zoo” where they preserve the beautiful creatures they’ve found on Earth.
In this case, “preserve” means “display dead bodies.” That’s where Will sees the princess one last time.
Mainly, the series isn’t concerned at all with women or girls. In one sense, that’s okay because it’s fine for stories to not be about women or girls. But it does place the few women in the story into stereotypical roles.
The series also takes place in England, then Europe and all the main protagonists are white. (Even though the odds should be that the survivors would be all races, given the integration in European society at the time the Tripods came.) Today, I doubt it would be written quite this way.
These elements may be a deal-breaker for some readers.
Conclusion: Should I Read the Tripods Series Or Not?
Unlike the Epic of the Pliocene Exile, I feel the series is still valuable.
It teaches the need to question how things have always been, to question traditions that make a person uneasy but aren’t challenged because of societal pressure.
Will is uneasy about being capped because he knows people change after the ritual. His best friend certainly did. And yet, despite these worries, Will lacks the courage to do something about his impending capping until a stranger, an adult, confirms that there’s something very wrong about the ritual that the community celebrates as a coming-of-age.
Questioning mindless authority is always a good takeaway from a series for readers of an impressionable age.