Sunday, February 19, 2012

When The Tripods Came... for him

a.k.a. his proper name, Samuel Youd

John Christopher, one of my favorite authors of the apocalypse fiction, has died.

I'm not going to recap his life... there are plenty of resources on the internet for that (although not nearly enough, in my opinion). I'm just here to express my grief on the loss of this author.

The Tripods

I guess I should just start out with what most people will be familiar with, his Tripods Trilogy (+1). Fanboys a little older than me probably read the first three books in grade school... they were common in libraries across the country. The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire tell of a world thrown back into the pre-machine ages, ruled by aliens who strode across the land in thrice-footed titans known as Tripods, who are also worshipped and loved by the populace thanks to a "cap" they place on humans upon reaching an agreeable age of maturity. Naturally, there are people who eventually rise up against this... the Freemen... and this is the tale of three young boys who join their camp and the fight against the tyranny of the Tripods.

Most of us either read these books in the school library, or the public library, or watched the BBC adaptations of the books on PBS and THEN read the books. That's how it happened for me. It didn't help that I had a crush on the actor who played Will (who looks disconcertingly like a young Paul McCartney).

This is the cover art from our library's copy.
I remember discovering the series on our local PBS channel, a branch of Kentucky Educational Television (KET), one Sunday morning. My brothers and even my sister were pretty captivated by it. Science Fiction? British? Sunday morning? Sign us up. Later I would see one of the books serialised in comic form in Boy's Life, but it was not as engrossing as the series. I sought out the books and of course raced through them, lamenting Henry's fate in the third book and eagerly awaiting the second series to see the alien Masters on screen.

In the 80s, for some reason, Youd penned a forth book, When The Tripods Came, a prequel telling of how the Tripods took over. They apparently used viral programming on television to do so, which was a bit prescient of how the internet would eventually help spiral popular things to the top of popular culture. When the internet finally started doing this, I noticed this similarity and thought it very peculiar. I wonder who really put that Hamster Dance online... Anyway, the book was a good chapter in the story, but it did feel kind of tacked on.... good, but unnecessary.

I liked how the books played as a comedy in the strictest terms, because, after the Masters were defeated and driven from the planet, humanity started its in-squabbling again. Oh humanity, will you ever learn? Yes, I view The Tripods ultimate as a comedy, in the strictest sense, because my actual favorite trilogy from Youd is very definitely a tragedy...

Art in the style of the Tripods, above...
It wasn't until I was an adult that I would come across many more John Christopher works. One that sticks with me is the Sword of the Spirits trilogy. It's a tragedy, in that our hero does not meet the best of fates at the end. Youd also manages to do something remarkable... he takes a likable protagonist, and through the course of three books, turns him into an absolute asshole without you really noticing it until the very end. Christianity also gets a very cold shoulder at first in the trilogy, being something to be ridiculed, but in the end it overturns the now-tyrant protagonist, who had become the aforementioned asshole. An awesome trilogy, with a very depressing end, that I can read over and over again.

The Lotus Caves

Youd wrote other stories as well, some quite well received, still. Probably the most famous is The Lotus Caves. It takes place on a Moon base. Humans are living there, squee, so it's already pretty fun from the start. Two boys hijack a go-cart and have an adventure in the moon mountains, only to discover a hidden cave where a Hive mind lurks, wanting to soak them in. Pretty gripping stuff for youngsters, lemme tell you.

But I don't think anything compares to his apocalyptic novel, No Blade of Grass.

I came across this very edition in a used paperback store in Lexington, KY, for only two bucks. I was elated when I realized what I had found... a JC novel I'd never read and knew nothing about... I knew I'd eat it up in mere days.

Kind of ironic, because the book is about the world starving to death. All grain based plants... meaning, most of them, fall ill to a virus, and the story follows a group of survivors trying to make it to one of their relatives' farms to live off of potatoes. The depravity they have to endure along the way is astonishing, when you consider when the book was published. It's my favorite John Christopher book of all, I have a first edition in storage even.

Anyway, it's not like I thought that he was going to write another book, but it is sad that he is gone. I wish they'd finished the Tripods on BBC for him.