THE TRIPODS


John Christopher's life and works

Photograph

[John Christopher, 1922--]

"John Christopher" is a pseudonym for Samuel Youd, a prolific author whose full bibliography runs to around 70 novels under seven different names. His best work, and both of his lasting reputations (for apocalyptic disaster novels, 1955-66, and for children's adventure stories, 1967-) go under the name "John Christopher", so I shall call him that.

John Christopher was born in Lancashire, in 1922. In 1932 he moved to Hampshire and attended Peter Symonds' School, Winchester, until the age of 16, when he left to work in local government. At school he had been "absolutely passionately devoted" to science fiction, and in his teens he published an amateur magazine (The Fantast). He admired Aldous Huxley and Arthur Clarke, at the literarily serious end of the spectrum.

After war service in the Royal Signals Corps (1941-6), a path also followed by Kingsley Amis, his ambitions were more conventionally literary. The Rockefeller Foundation awarded him one of a number of grants for aspiring writers whose careers had been interrupted by war, and it enabled him to complete his first novel, The Winter Swan (published 1949):

Having been warned that nearly all first novels were autobiographical, I had made my chief character an elderly woman... and stacked the cards further against success by reversing the normal time sequence and telling her story from grave to childhood.

(This from a piece, unusually signed "C. S. Youd", in Something about the Author Autobiography Series, vol. 6.) Described as "not uninteresting" and "by no means insensitive" by the Times Literary Supplement, it was not a commercial success, but he continued to publish one "straight" novel per year throughout the 1950s.

Christopher joined the information bureau of an industrial diamond business, a background which must have informed the SF short stories he was writing under the name "John Christopher": those collected in The Twenty-Second Century (1954) are very much in the post-war sci-fi style and would stand plausibly with Frederik Pohl or the Arthur Clarke of The Sands of Mars, say. The solar system is to be tamed by a managerial class, as if a new Africa had been opened up by the multinational corporations which would come (he was right about that part). A publisher encouraged him to a novel in the same milieu, and this became The Year of the Comet (1955).

With a wife and family to support, and only a poorly paid job, he became an evening hack-writer. Turning out four novels a year under a range of pseudonyms (John Christopher, Anthony Rye, Peter Graaf, Hilary Ford, Peter Nichols, William Godfrey), and in a variety of genres (science fiction, thriller, historical romance, comedy, detection and even cricketing), the wonder is that his talent or ambition survived at all. He was "a one-draft writer", except that he would rewrite chapter 1 after finishing the whole. These drafts are better than pulp fiction, in that they are consistently adequate. His friend, John Burke, wrote in a candid tribute last year (in Circus 8):

Those were the days of the Thursday evening science-fiction gatherings in the White Horse, Fetter Lane, where one might expect to see at irregular intervals Arthur Clarke, John Harris (= John Wyndham), Ken Bulmer, Dave McIlwain... Also visiting Americans, including Joy Gresham, who later set off to Oxford determined to marry C. S. Lewis, in which of course she succeeded.

Christopher's first science-fiction novel of substance, The Death of Grass (1956), "written in a matter of weeks" liberated him from the day job. It was issued in the US, retitled No Blade of Grass (as the US publisher felt the original title "sounded like something out of a gardening catalogue") and the film rights were sold to MGM.

I've never actually seen [the film]. I heard such bad reports when it came out that I couldn't bring myself to go to a cinema and watch it. Years later, it came on as a late-night television film, so I settled down to watch it with a glass of whisky. I lasted twenty minutes, then I went to bed. It was awful.

(quoted in Radio Times). A number of successful apocalyptic-SF novels were to follow, and remain the most worthwhile fruits of this period. John Griffiths, in his survey Three Tomorrows: American, British and Soviet Science Fiction, suggests that a talent for the orthodox novel of relationships ("especially between the sexes") is what makes Christopher the "principal analyst" of the apocalyptic situation. Looking back from 1980, John Griffiths cites The Death of Grass as the definitive novel in its genre, whose other writers included John Wyndham and J. G. Ballard. (He mentions also the far less known Pendulum as the best attempt at a more American theme, the portrayal of society taken over by the ruthless young.) Christopher's novels of the late 1950s were successful in a more prosaic sense, too, enabling him to move to Guernsey, in the Channel Islands.

*

His career reached a turning point in about 1966, when he felt he could no longer go on as he had been. He seems to have been at something of a loose end when a publisher suggested that he try his hand at a science fiction book for children. The idea did not initially please, but it was to establish a second and more solid reputation. He has written almost nothing else since and has become identified with "John Christopher", his other pseudonyms long since discarded.

The book became The White Mountains (1967). But

...the frisson for the future, which had enthralled me in the Art Deco thirties, had long gone: the past interested me more.

He also felt that:

In the old days... You could believe there was enough air on Mars to support life and so on, because we knew relatively little about the solar system. But by the time [space exploration] actually began to start happening we knew so much more. That sort of science fiction seems to me more like fairy stories, now.

(Writing in Books for Keeps, July 1981). Revealingly, in a January 1999 interview he added:

But I feel it was also like being through an intense love affair: the passion can't be resurrected.

Another reason for the change in Christopher's style may be that he found a critical editor, Susan Hirschman (of Macmillan in New York), after years of minimal interference or interest by publishers only concerned to get books to press. Christopher summed up her verdict as: "the first chapter was good, but the book then fell apart". He made a full second draft, something he still rather endearingly seems to regard as an imposition, and was told that it was "better, but the middle still hopeless". With the rewrite finally sent to press, Christopher ploughed on with the trilogy at great speed and it was complete by 1968.

The three books were acclaimed at once by reviewers, so much so that all three were short-listed for the Guardian Children's Book Award, a major event in the British children's book industry. Christopher's fourth children's book, The Lotus Caves, was received with mild disappointment, but then The Guardians won the Award outright in 1970. In the space of four years, Christopher had radically re-invented himself as a writer.

Christopher cites The Swiss Family Robinson and Coral Island as the children's books most influential on himself, and comments that

I was attracted by the Coral Island theme of three boys in a strange and dangerous situation having to learn how to cope.

He is writing about Empty World, but it could apply equally well to The White Mountains. The Christopher trademark is essentially of teenage individuality and escape, which is eventually resolved by an acceptance of responsibility. Some critics find this last aspect didactic, but for the most part I don't agree: his characters do not abstractly discuss ethics, do not solve criminal intrigues and do not commit trivial sins in order for there to be a forgiveness scene (as for instance in C. S. Lewis's Narnia novels). Instead they tend to find themselves in uncompromisingly adult situations. They fall in love, they die, on occasion they kill.

Christopher's most important other works for children are The Guardians and the Sword of the Spirits trilogy, each of which had origins in unpublished (adult) novels which had not satisfied him. The Guardians is set in an England with a kind of Berlin Wall dividing an Arcadian rural paradise from grim urban conurbations. It was highly acclaimed in its German translation, winning the Jugendbuchpreis, and was studied in school and adapted for television there: given the theme, in which growing up consists of re-evaluating the two only apparently opposite halves of a divided country, it's not hard to see why. Christopher was amused to be treated as high art by Bavarian television when he visited the set:

One lady said anxiously that they had had to make a change. At the point where the boy sees a squirrel cross the fence and realizes it cannot be electrified as he'd feared, they used a cat instead. "We are very short of trained squirrels in Germany, Mr Christopher."

The Sword of the Spirits is bleaker yet, with a narrator far more deeply flawed than that of The Tripods. Again we have a medieval landscape from which science has withdrawn, following a nuclear holocaust which has left humanity genetically damaged. The narrator becomes Prince of the city state of Winchester, helped and manipulated by Scientists who live on in hiding: he arms himself with machine-guns and is able to massacre his enemies. Each will betray the other. In the second book, the narrator journeys into Wales and falls tragically in love. The final book can be seen as a parable for the persecution of early Christians under the late Roman empire: with the narrator in the role of Emperor. The evil of machinery in the hands of men is treated directly, not through the cypher of the Tripods, and all in all the trilogy is a very surprising work to find in the children's section.

*

Christopher remains a frequent choice in librarians' lists for children, especially in America, and The Tripods has received a fair amount of critical attention thereby. Searching the Internet produces numerous library pages recommending the books to children of various ages. They have been widely translated, have never been out of print and were only recently reissued with new cover designs, their sixth or seventh set. Christopher's other books for children wander in and out of print; he is still, though slowly, producing them, A Dusk of Demons being the latest. Very few novelists can claim to have published in both 1949 and 1995.

In the adult domain, posterity (in the form of, say, the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Literature) regards Christopher as a successor to John Wyndham in the British school of "cosy catastrophe" science fiction; in these contexts, his children's books are seldom mentioned. The Death of Grass, rightly I think, is the book most quoted and occasionally found on GCSE reading lists. But none are often in print.

But there is a basic continuity of outlook and content between his adult and adolescent books, however they serve different literary worlds. For one thing, a number of recurring themes of Christopher's adult novels are also found in the Tripods books: a passion for Switzerland; growing up in Winchester; the pastoral landscape which follows a global catastrophe; islands; social feudalism; harrowing studies of pathological individuals (compare the lone hermits of A Wrinkle In The Skin and the island in The City of Gold and Lead); wilderness journeys.

Christopher, or rather Youd, is married, has four daughters, a son and grandchildren. He now lives in Rye, a small coastal town in the Sussex Downs, and part of the filming of the BBC Tripods took place in the fields near his house.

Here is a bibliography for the name "John Christopher" only: note that many of the early novels were issued under different titles in Britain and America. I've starred those I personally think the most interesting:


Adult fiction
"The Twenty-Second Century" (short stories, 1954).
"The Year of the Comet", US "Planet in Peril" (1955).
(*) "The Death of Grass", US "No Blade of Grass" (1956).
(*) "The Caves of Night" (1958).
"A Scent of White Poppies" (1959).
"The Long Voyage", US "The White Voyage" (1960).
(*) "The World in Winter", US "The Long Winter" (1962).
"Cloud on Silver", US "Sweeney's Island" (1964).
(*) "The Possessors" (1965).
"A Wrinkle in the Skin", US "The Ragged Edge" (1966).
"The Little People" (1967).
"Pendulum" (1968).
Children's fiction
(*) "The White Mountains" (1967), "The City of Gold and Lead" (1967), "The Pool of Fire" (1968).
"The Lotus Caves" (1969).
(*) "The Guardians" (1970).
(*) "The Prince in Waiting" (1970), "Beyond the Burning Lands" (1971), "The Sword of the Spirits" (1972). (A short story called "Of Polymuf Stock" is also set in this milieu.)
"Dom and Va" (1972), also known as "In The Beginning".
"Wild Jack" (1974).
"Empty World" (1978).
"Fireball" (1981), "New Found Land" (1983), "Dragon Dance" (1986).
"When The Tripods Came" (1988).
"A Dusk of Demons" (1995).
The Possessors has been dramatised as a BBC radio play, The Guardians and Empty World were adapted for German television and, of course, the first two books of the Tripods trilogy for BBC television.
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