The White Mountains, by John Christopher

As post-apocalyptic visions of the future go, the world in John Christopher’s Tripod series isn’t so bad. In some ways, it’s almost idyllic—a world without war or famine, where people are comfortably assured of their own destiny. But there is one major downside: as soon as you turn fourteen, you’re sucked up into the belly of a three-legged, alien-controlled machine called a Tripod, and you’re not returned until a mind-controlling metal cap has been fused onto your skull. The metal caps don’t seem to turn you into a total zombie... but once you've been “Capped” you’re never quite the same.

Christopher’s hero is a thirteen-year-old boy named Will Parker. Will just isn’t convinced about this whole Capping business—it’s unthinkable to question the will of the Tripods, whom the whole world views as benevolent masters, but Will is decidedly nervous about his upcoming Capping ceremony. When a strange man hints at the possibility of a life without the Tripods’ control, Will can't help but listen, even though escape will mean a long and treacherous journey to the White Mountains.

Discussing these novels with other people has been interesting. As I re-read the series, I was surprised to discover how much of Christopher’s trilogy had lingered in my memory. Despite not reading the books for more than fifteen years, my little brother was able to discuss a number of plot points with me. The young woman who sold them to me at the bookstore told me excitedly that she had just re-read them for the first time since fourth grade. (She’d forgotten the author’s name, but she’d never forgotten how good the books were, and she had been delighted to discover the reprints.) My fifty-something mother instantly knew which books I was talking about: “Yeah,” she said, “I remember those. They were good, but would it have killed the guy to have included a few girl characters?”

And therein lies the rub. Where are all the girls? In the first book of the trilogy, Christopher mentions that men’s minds are more likely than women’s to reject the cap. One can interpret that in a positive light—women’s minds are more adaptable—or in a negative one—women are more easily controlled. This is no comment on Mr. Christopher’s personal views (and he tells me that he has four daughters, who rule his life with iron fists), but the lack of powerful female characters in the series seems to suggest the latter option. There is only one major female character in Christopher’s trilogy: beautiful, sweet-natured, fourteen-year-old Eloise. The mutual attraction between her and Will is strong enough to sway him from his purpose... but within thirty-five pages of meeting her, their romance is over, and Will continues on his journey. She remains his feminine ideal, and he thinks of her wistfully for the rest of the series, but she’s gone, and any chance of a vital female figure left with her. Even the aliens don’t seem to have much use for girls–boys are chosen to be their servants based on athletic ability, but girls have nothing to offer. (Although the aliens do kill a few of the loveliest “specimens” and preserve them behind glass like pinned butterflies, so one could argue that girls serve a decorative function.)

I usually find it tough to really get into books without girl characters in them. (It’s the main reason I’ve never been able to appreciate Tolkien... well, that, and all the poetry.) A lack of female characters isn’t an absolute bar to my reading enjoyment—Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet didn’t have any notable girl characters, and that didn’t stop me from loving every geeky page of it. But Cameron’s book is very much a relic of the fifties, like poodle skirts or The Blob, and I enjoyed it as such. I hold the Tripod trilogy to an entirely different standard.

I was lucky enough to discuss the lack of female characters with Mr. Christopher himself, and he presented several good reasons why he didn’t include many girls. His books are essentially a battle story, and girls tend to be less martial than boys. Physically, they’re less powerful, and the world he described was grueling. The trilogy was written in the late sixties and early seventies, when it 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. But despite these justifications, it’s tough to believe that there wouldn’t be more girls at least as interested in avoiding the Cap as boys were. Trust me, being an almost-fourteen-year-old girl means enough scary, life-altering weirdness as it is. Wouldn’t the idea of escaping one more huge change—particularly one that means a major personality adjustment, not to mention a shaved head—attract more than handful of them?

While the length of this essay might suggest otherwise, the lack of female characters is not the thing that defines this series for me. On the contrary, it is because these books are so very, very good that I’m disappointed by what I view as their one failing. Christopher’s trilogy is remarkable because his vision of a world full of aliens mooching off the energy of placid, willingly enslaved humans is the kind of thing that resonates with readers, even as the specific technologies he mentions in his books grow more and more out-of-date. (Plus, people have been riffing on this idea since these books came out. Did the people who made The Matrix pay Christopher any royalties? Because they totally should have.) The Tripod books were compelling and disturbing in 1967, and they’re still compelling and disturbing today. John Christopher should be very proud—not many sci-fi novels can claim the same.

Note: Unfortunately, short of writing a fifth book in the series about some previously unmentioned female character (in addition to the original trilogy, there is a prequel that Christopher wrote years later), my dream of a story about a girl dealing with the horrors of Christopher’s world seems pretty far-fetched. That’s okay, though—this is why God gave us fanfiction.
Posted by: Julia, Last edit by: Julianka


29 May, 2006 09:00 AM @ version 0

And in the prequel, the hero makes some comment about how girls are less likely than boys to join the resistance movement. To be fair, his sister smacks him down for the comment--but why make it in the first place? The whole thing is irritating!
\r\n...but they're still entertaining, I have to admit.

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