The Lotus Caves by John Christopher (1922 – 2012) is a “stand-alone” novel published in 1969. Christopher (the pen-name of Sam Youd) is generally known for writing a young-adult science fiction series The Tripods and for his adult science fiction novel The Death of Grass (1956). The Lotus Caves is the first piece I have read by Christopher and I am somewhat saddened that I did not get to read this novel about forty-years ago. I think I would really have enjoyed this one as a young reader. Anyway, this week I read the 1974 Collier/Macmillan edition of the novel of 214 pages.
I have struggled for some time to find the precise way of explaining how I feel regarding young adult and/or juvenile fiction. I think this book jarred some cells around in my brain and I am able to give a little bit of a better explanation after having read it. So, contemporary publishing is mass-barfing what is known as “young-adult” fiction – and I have said before that I am not entirely sure who is buying and/or reading it. I have mixed feelings, generally, on the matter. I do suspect that many readers believe that “young-adult” fiction is something new to the fiction world; that this genre has just been created, as it were, in the last ten years or so.
There is an element of truth to that. It my estimation, contemporary “young-adult” fiction is new – because this version of it has morphed considerably from what it used to be. It seems to me that juvenile fiction (so, somewhere between Hardy Boys and Dune) used to be different – and here is where I often fail at description. Let me posit Hal Clement’s Needle and this Christopher novel as two examples of older juvenile fiction. Immediately, I will share that I think these two are qualitatively, markedly better (???? in what way???) reading than contemporary examples.
The striking difference for me is that contemporary novels are cacophonous. They are very loud, busy, overwhelmingly relying on dialog, and hectic. I think that there was an understanding, in the 1950s and 1960s, that juvenile fiction was made so because the authors pared down the writing. This is key – they pared down the novel in ways that made it a more simple read, but not simplistic. Also, the authors did not idiotize the story.
The Lotus Caves is actually a rather meaty story. There are all sorts of dimensions a reader could explore here and the depth of the novel is also quite surprising. For a pared down juvenile novel of a mere 214 pages, this book has all kinds of worthwhile, thought-provoking ideas. It is not an action-thriller, it does not bludgeon the reader with “the moral” or “the key concept.” It does not have teenage angst, though it does have relevancy for young-adult readers. Frankly, this ought to be mandatory reading for aspiring young-adult fiction authors.
The story takes place entirely on the Moon – there is a human colony there that lives in a domed structure called the Bubble. The main character is Marty and the story begins with us learning that Marty’s best friend, Paul, is absent because he is being sent back to Earth. In this iteration of lunar colony, transportation and resources are quite realistic. Supplies and transit do not occur often or quickly and everything about the colony is conserved, reserved, and guarded. Life without Paul is something that Marty must quickly adapt to and this leads to his new friendship with Steve. Steve is something of an anomaly in the Bubble because he is an orphan. Is he a “troubled youth”? The stodgy adults of the Bubble might consider Steve to be a bit of a rebel, though, in all honesty, Steve is a normal kid.
(We meet Steve as he is sitting in a library writing a pirate novel………..)
There is a lot that can be appreciated about Marty’s reaction to all of these things. How he reacts to Paul’s departure and how the adults react to his friendship with Steve. This is not some emo, drippy novel, though. Christopher very nicely presents the story and the reader is left to sympathize with characters as they choose without being forced into grinding along some trope/stereotype.
Well, one of the main challenges with living in the Bubble is dealing with boredom. Events and choices lead Steve and Marty to leaving the Bubble on-board a “crawler” (a moon surface vehicle that utilizes tracks). Steve and Marty go exploring without the permission of the authorities. One of the most important features of the story is that Steve and Marty are not just stupid kids who act impulsively and randomly. Both Steve and Marty think and talk things through – the act of choice-making is highly relevant in this novel.
Eventually, the fellows find themselves in caves wherein they discover sentient alien life – in the form of flora. It is not native to the moon (or Earth), but it has been on the moon for a long time. The trouble is, Marty and Steve’s crawler crashed through the surface of the moon and fell into these caves where the plant dwells. So, the characters must cope with being stuck in an unfamiliar place with an alien lifeform. Notably, both Steve and Marty are brave; reading along with their adventures would have been quite gripping, I think, when I was a youth. I like how they think about things before they take action, I like how they are brave – acting even when they are terrified. Anyway, it is Marty who gives the title to the novel, really, when he refers to the lotus-eaters of Greek mythology (Cp. Odyssey).
They tried to work out the mechanism of the raft’s motion but got nowhere. It was at least comforting to talk in objective terms, as a means of forgetting the strangeness of the journey. -pg. 150
If you have ever been frightened before, you know this process, too.
Overall, I like that the story has so much depth, but without an expanded page count. There is not a whole backstory to learn while having to keep an eye on an entire galaxy. This is one event that occurs and in a contained setting. I like the characters because they explore the moon while they explore the virtues/vices of willfulness, stubbornness, determination, leadership. Now, there is a touch of melancholy in this novel, but I think that aids in keeping it serious and thoughtful. This is not some goofy comical story garbaging up young minds.