John Christopher

The White Mountains

The White MountainsThe White Mountains by John Christopher (1922 – 2012) was first published in 1967 and is the first in the Tripods series written by Christopher. There are four small books in the series, which was written as juvenile fiction or young adult fiction.  My copy has 195 pages and they are fast-turning pages.

The story takes place in a sort of pseudo-post-apocalyptic timeline.  The reader is kept in the dark regarding the past history, just like the main character, Will Parker. Humanity is under the guardianship/control of the Tripods. In one sense they are distant masters because they do not seem to play an active role in the daily life of humans, but in another sense, via the “caps” that humans are forced to wear, they are in absolute direct contact with humanity. Based on Will Parker’s narrative, the reader learns that various artefacts remain from a previous time that show humanity has backslid from technological advances. Will’s father possesses a wristwatch that particularly fascinates Will.

Chance brings a falsely-capped man through Will’s town of Wherton. Wherton is basically a rural community that keeps itself fairly isolated. This falsely-capped man shares a number of insights with Will that leads Will to understand “capping” as no more than enslavement. Luckily, the man also tells Will about the White Mountains – a land far away in which men live free and independent without the control of the Tripods.  Will realizes that knowing what he knows (though, at this point, its just the belief in what the man has told him) he can no longer remain in Wherton.  Will’s adventure begins as he departs the only life he has ever known in search of the White Mountains.

Overall, this is quite an interesting novel. A variety of challenges and adventures for the characters to overcome. I enjoyed it and I think that if I had read it as a youth, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more. I particularly liked how the young characters in the novel were intrepid and resourceful.  They were not perfect and they made choices that might seem reckless or foolish under the light of a mature wisdom, but for teenagers, the choices seem legit. It is important to remember that these characters are teenagers – I think the main character can become infuriatingly annoying and toxic at times, but especially so when the reader forgets that Will is but a teenager from a rural community. So, sometimes he can seem impulsive, stubborn, and petty.

The most unsatisfying part of this novel is that Christopher shies away from giving the reader much information. There is a sparsity of information in the novel that is somewhat off-putting. It is perfectly fine to limit the perspective of the world to the perceptions of three young boys on an adventure, but at the same time, the novel lacks any answers or definitiveness that embeds the reader into the storyline or setting.  The ending is particularly weak; it is a bit of hand-waving vagueness and the reader just sort of accepts that things were manageable for the boys from that point on. Somehow. No details, of course. Just the understanding that their adventure had rather ended.

I will read the rest of the series eventually, they are very short books so this should not be an issue. I am glad I read this one, the writing is smooth and suits the story. I think a lot of readers today will be impatient with this sort of writing/novel.

4 stars

The Lotus Caves

The Lotus Caves

“The Lotus Caves” – John Christopher; Collier, 1974

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.

4 stars