RIP John Christopher, Unsung Young-Adult Sci-Fi Writer

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The author, who died last week, wrote books that linked a familiar past with an unrecognizable future.

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Simon Pulse

The author John Christopher died in England last Friday, and I'm guessing that most of you have no idea who he was or what he wrote. He wrote an awful lot, in a lot of different genres, under many different names, but I remember him today because of three creased and crinkled used paperbacks of science fiction I stumbled across as a child at the "for sale" carousel at the Reginald P. Dawson Library in Town of Mount Royal, Quebec. I still have the books--35 years later--and have dutifully tried to get my son to read them. Maybe I'll try again now.

The books are The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire and together they comprise what is called the "Tripod Series," named for the shape of the giant aliens who have captured Earth and enslaved the humans at the core of Christopher's narratives. I don't remember much of the details of the books except that a group of young boys were always on the run, part of a resistance to the alien conquerors, in a sort of 1984 meets Red Dawn meets the French Resistance fondue.

Here is how The Guardian led its obituary of Christopher:

The science-fiction author John Christopher, who has died aged 89, was perhaps best known for the Tripods trilogy for young adults. The books (published in 1967-68) depict a world suffering under the control of aliens from a far star, who can survive in the Earth's inimical atmosphere only by moving around in deadly tripodal machines inside which their own atmosphere can be replicated. As a result, our world has reverted to a low-technology state, almost medieval in nature. A group of adolescents, not yet fitted with a mentally controlling "cap", bravely confront the menace of the Tripods. In the end, the results they achieve are not entirely what they expected.

On the back cover of my copy of The White Mountains, there is this blurb from some long-ago review by the Chicago Tribune:

The strength of this book's grip is less in its elements of fantasy than in its elements of reality, less in the horror of the Tripods than in the normality of Will, Henry and Jean-Paul. Their flight through a strange world 100 years from now will remind readers of that greatest of boyhood flights, through a stranger world 100 years ago, down the Mississippi with Huck Finn

Well, I wouldn't go that far. John Christopher was no Mark Twain. And he was no George Orwell, either, although (as with Orwell and H.G. Wells) there is something overwhelmingly British--stiff upper lip and all--about the heroes/victims of Christopher's stories. In fact, in the very first paragraph of the very first book, the main character, "Will," describes a scene that makes me think today of those endless English-themed movies, the period pieces, where you feel like Anthony Hopkins at any moment is going to jump out of a cloakroom at you:

Apart from the one in the church tower, there were five clocks in the village that kept reasonable time, and my father owned one of them. It stood on the mantlepiece in the parlor and every night before he went to bed he took the key from a vase and wound it up. Once a year the clockman came from Winchester, on an old jogging pack horse, to clean and oil it and put it right. Afterward he would drink camomile tea with my mother and tell her the news of the city and what he had heard in the villages through which he had passed.

Even the last line of the series is notably British: "'Yes,' I said, 'I'll leave my seas and island.'" In the Commonwealth's Canada, a lifetime ago, I liked the books because they linked a familiar past--the traveling salesman, etc.--with an unrecognizable future. I don't know why so many other people liked the Tripod series, too, but there was a television series about it and, for a while, it was evidently serialized here in the United States in Boys Life. I wonder how many of those Boy Scouts who read the series would remember Christoper today?

My version of The White Mountains, written in 1967, was already on its fourth paperback printing by 1974. The last in the series, The Pool of Fire, written in 1968, was already in its third paperback printing in 1973. Christopher's New York Times obituary explains why he wrote so much and so quickly on so many topics: 

The financial demands of a growing family set the blistering pace of his output of books and short stories in the early years, he said. He wrote most of his stories in a single draft, until Susan Hirschmann, an editor at his New York publishing house, Macmillan, cajoled him into rewriting and polishing the young-adult novels that later became the "Tripods" series. He frequently acknowledged her contributions to his books' success.

"The original version of 'The White Mountains' was probably just about worth publishing," he wrote in the preface to a 2003 anniversary edition of the first book in the trilogy, which first appeared in 1967. "But would it, without Susan, have remained in print and worthy of a commemorative relaunch, three and a half decades after its original publication? I've no doubt about the answer to that."

Across the pond, the obituaries were, predictably, both gentler and more insightful. From The Guardian's "Books Blog:"

Christopher was one of a generation of British writers who exploited the mass popularity of science fiction as a way of holding the mirror of art up to a wide spectrum of British society. The Tripods owes a debt to the martian invaders of HG Wells's The War of the Worlds, and both stories in different ways comment on the authoritarian culture of British society. The influence of John Wyndham's "cosy catastrophe" novels such as The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids is clear in Christopher's very British depictions of apocalyptic settings and, like Wyndham, Christopher fills his stories with oblique character studies drawn from everyday life in Britain. And while they shared little stylistically, both John Christopher and his near contemporary JG Ballard shared a healthy cynicism about just how long Britain's polite society would last without the comforts afforded by wealth.

Wealth, schmealth. If you have a kid between the ages of 10 and 14, who likes science fiction, take a shot at having them read these books. John Christopher, who also wrote under the names Stanley Winchester, Hilary Ford, William Godfrey, William Vine, Peter Graaf, Peter Nichols and Anthony Rye, deserves to have this work absorbed by another generation of young readers. Oh, and because you won't likely hear about him ever again, Christopher's real name, all this time, was Sam Youd.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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