Consider the Ray Gun: John Christopher’s The Tripods Trilogy
Consider the Ray Gun is back, and this time I’m joined by Kit Power, who has had an increasing presence on the EP podcasts as of late, having appeared on Pex Lives, a previous Oi! Spaceman, and the most recent Shabcast. We’re discussing a book trilogy that meant a lot to him as a young man, John Christopher’s Tripods Trilogy, which are comprised of The White Mountains, The City of Lead and Gold, and The Pool of Fire. There was also a BBC production in the eighties of the first two books, which I haven’t seen but from which I stole the image you see to the right. Because that’s how I roll here.
I had never heard of the trilogy before Kit recommended them, so I’ve included a brief synopsis of what you need to know at the beginning of the podcast episode. We have a wide-ranging conversation, covering not just structural details of the trilogy and the nature of the shithead protagonist Will, but also the meaning of religion in people’s lives, the horrors of chattel slavery and the Haitian Revolution, and of course there’s a brief Adric mention.
September 26, 2016 @ 4:02 pm
Oh, and I forgot to pass this on to Daniel, but here’s a piece I did a while back about my memories of my childhood education on the slave trade. If, you know, you needed to feel bad for some reason.
September 27, 2016 @ 8:50 am
Oh, I will look forward to this. Of course The Tripods is a jolly romp compared to Christopher’s Prince In Waiting trilogy, unquestionably the bleakest “kids” books I have ever read. The last line of The Sword of the Spirits is as grim as it gets.
September 28, 2016 @ 1:43 am
Some good points raised, but overall a rather unpleasant and vicious attack on Sam Youd.
September 28, 2016 @ 8:39 am
Aww c’mon, it was hardly a “vicious attack”.
September 29, 2016 @ 7:49 am
“John Christopher is a sexist douche”?
September 29, 2016 @ 10:23 am
Have you spent much time on the internet?
September 29, 2016 @ 11:01 am
September 28, 2016 @ 7:44 pm
Thanks – I might just go and read those again (apart, obviously, from When the Tripods Came, which I remember reading when it came out and even then was unmistakably a terrible idea). Particularly the third, of which I remember very little except the unhappy ending where it all falls apart, something I associate John Christopher and Nicholas Fisk with as being disturbing and appealing as a boy.
I don’t know anything about Youd as a person, and am not led by his novels to believe I’d agree with him on feminism or racism (the Swinging Sixties happened to just other people), but I’m not wholly convinced by your jump to ‘he’s just a One Nation Tory’. I mean, I wouldn’t be wildly surprised, but One Nation Tory benevolent paternalism and even John Major’s village greens take a right walloping in The White Mountains from how I read it. So I wouldn’t be wildly surprised, either, to find that he was an Old Labour man suggesting that old-fashioned Tory One Nation Tory benevolent paternalism leaves you brain dead. Or, in one thing he might have in common with the counterculture of 1968, Youd could make Will see the attraction of being comfortable but his protagonist and his ‘cosy catastrophe’ rebellion clearly side with the potential catastrophe over the cosy.
I think there’s one part where you seemed to fall into your own trap – or possibly Youd’s, if he was more aware than you assume – on the sort of prejudices you were criticising Youd for; you both actually having talked about how some people would defend what some slaves ‘got out of’ slavery, I recoiled a bit when you laugh at Will having it easy as a “show poodle” while Fritz’s Master was a sadist, which seemed to be missing the point. Isn’t that kind of like saying, ‘Well, obviously some plantation owners were bad apples, but look at these slaves who had it easy – what are they complaining about?’
But women. Yeah. I don’t imagine that will read again well. Have either of you read John Christopher’s next trilogy, The Sword of the Spirits? I might have to give that another go, too; if you thought Will was a dick, the protagonist of that one is a complete… And it has a few women characters in it, about whom the narrator is very unreliable indeed, especially when they decide it’s not all his story and it turns into Youd’s version of an extremely famous tale, with live ammo.
It’s possible I’m misremembering this, but I never saw Eloise as some kind of ‘We Are Coming For Your Earth Women’ trope – just as Will realises he’s just a pet to the galactic imperialists, isn’t she a butterfly stuck on a board? Not that that makes it any more feminist, but I don’t think it’s aliens finding Earth women sexy, more the cosmic horror of the galactic Edwardian naturalist…
September 29, 2016 @ 12:37 pm
Firstly, thank so much for listening, and for the really thoughtful response, which has given me a lot to chew on. I hope you do decide to re-read – for all my voluble issues with aspects of the text, it was overall a really fun experience for me to revisit the books (and indeed, as we converse, I’m up to chapter 6 of the White Mountains with my daughter).
On the ‘One Nation Tory’ thing – first, I hope I didn’t use the word ‘only’ in conjunction with One Nation Tory – Daniel may have – and if I did, I misspoke and apologise for that. If Tories have to exist in the world at all, I vastly prefer the One Nation flavour – they’re still essentially wrong about most things, but I feel like I can have a rational conversation with them from a shared set of premises, which I don’t feel is the case for the post Thatcherite mob. Of course, as I’ve joked off mic before, I’m probably the most right wing guest on EP podcasts, given that I’m a card carrying member of the Labour Party .
That said, you’re correct that a lot of what we point to as ONT signifiers – paternalism, casual sexism/racism etc. – could as easily be grounded in an ‘Old Labour’ perspective. I think it’s very easy for us on the left to get complacent about such things, and it’s a good observation. I think, however, that for me, it was the identification of Julius as essentially Churchill (Daniel’s brilliant observation, I hasten to add) that really tipped the scales on this one, for me. Saying that, I very much interpret the text as being deeply sympathetic to Julius – YMMV, and if it does V, then sure, the Old Labour read would fit. I think what I admire about that is that the writing is both clear and rings true enough that either interpretation is viable.
I’m not sure I agree about the ‘trap’ we feel into regarding Will’s treatment, though. I know for myself that my laughter at that situation was entirely focussed around the continual narrative of Will imagining himself the tragic, put-upon hero, while other people are going through far deeper hells. If at any point that implied that I thought Will’s treatment was good or acceptable, that’s a failure of communication, for which I apologise. It was more about how well Fritz managed to stay stoic in the face of Will’s naivety and self-absorbsion that was tickling my funny bone. I think acknowledging that there were some slave owners that were harsher than others doesn’t diminish the horrors of slavery in all and any forms, and I am sorry if I gave an impression otherwise. It’s actually something I could have dug into more – the internal politics of the masters, and the notion of the ‘liberal’ slave owner – but the conversation went where it went.
I haven’t read Sword of the Spirits, but you tempt me with your words
And yeah, good catch on Elloise as butterfly – that’s a perfectly fair reading.
Thanks again, so much, for listening and responding.