The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1968) and The Pool of Fire (1968), plus When the Tripods Came (1988)
Published by Simon Pulse
“Tell me, Will. What do you think of the Tripods?”
I said truthfully, “I don’t know. I used to take them for granted—and I was frightened of them, I suppose—but now… There are questions in my mind.”
When our K. Burtt referred to The Chronicles of Prydain as “My First Fantasy”, boy was he not kidding. Just as easily could John Christopher’s Tripods Trilogy be called “My First Sci-Fi”. And not just because it was my first sci-fi, either.
Of course, often our “firsts” of anything are encountered in movie and television form; certainly I saw The Wizard of Oz long before I was competent enough to read The Book of Three, and likewise did I view Stars Trek and Wars before I discovered The White Mountains. But that SF-stuff all happened in space; the events of Tripods occur on Earth, but just an Earth a little bit sideways of ours.
I’d never imagined anything like it! (But then again: I was nine.)
Our story takes place in a sparsely populated and feudal society in which people farm and mill and otherwise work the land. There are relics of bygone technologies in existence, but no longer in production; for example, in the particular village in which we commence our journey, young Will Parker’s father is the proud possessor of the only Watch anyone has ever seen for miles around.
Will has an elder, beloved cousin named Jack, and we watch through Will’s first person narrative as Jack is “capped”. Capping happens to the young of every village once they reach the age of fourteen; a giant metal being stalks into the neighborhood, the teen has his or her head shaved and a mesh cap put in place over their skull, and they are then expected to put away childish things and commence laboring with their elders. Occasionally, a cap will not take, leading to madness; these unfortunate souls then roam the countryside as Vagrants, dependent upon the kindness of strangers.
One such Vagrant comes to town, naming himself Ozymandias and declaiming every thought in impressive and archaic periods. But Ozymandias is not the madman he appears; he is, in fact, a tireless recruiter for the Resistance, a small community of humans who know the truth of the caps — they facilitate mind control — and who seek to live free and clear of the mysterious Tripods’ iron rule. Will, disheartened by the change in Jack since his capping and worried for his own future, is quickly (too quickly, I now feel, but as a child, his sudden and absolute conversion seemed perfectly natural) on board with the Anti-Tripod cause, and agrees to abandon his home, family and all he has ever known to go on a perilous quest across a hazardous and hostile land in order to reach safe haven in the White Mountains.
Like I said: as a kid, way more reasonable.
Coming along for the ride is Will’s hated other cousin, Henry, who recently lost his mother and apparently feels life on the road will cure his broken heart. (Hint: it does.) Along the way, they meet with various trials and tribulations, have to steal food and hide from the authorities, and at one point find a home with a wealthy French count, whose doomed daughter Eloise holds an unknowable attraction for young Will. (And whose name I pronounced “E-loice” for years and years.) Along the way, they discover more about the Tripods’ nature, and after finally making it to the White Mountains at the end of the first book, Will is then selected — along with new friends Beanpole and Fritz — to infiltrate one of three great Tripod cities (located in Germany; the others are in Malaysia and Panama… of course) and learn more about their evil overlords. Will, naturally enough, becomes privy to all kinds of useful knowledge and narrowly escapes death several times; by the third book, the Resistance is in full swing and we can be in no doubt of the series’ final outcome.
Yay, humanity! We repelled the invaders! Except… hey, what’s with all the fighting amongst ourselves?
In 1988, several years after my first trip to the White Mountains and City of Gold and Lead (wherein I discovered the Pool of Fire), a prequel novel recounting the original invasion and eventual conquering of Earth by the alien “Masters” came out, and filled in a whole lot of blanks, as well as making a persuasive argument against too much television watching. (They used a TV show to brainwash us, you see.) That book, entitled When the Tripods Came, ends with the foundation of the White Mountain stronghold, bringing things full circle quite nicely — although I recommend reading it after the original trilogy. (As with almost all prequels.)
But recommend reading it I do. Indeed, I recommend the whole series. If you’re an adult who has never read it, please do so; it won’t take you long, and you’ll enjoy yourself tremendously. If you have read it, but not since childhood, give it another go, just to see how much of your present day tastes were informed by this seminal experience. And if you are (or know) a child of nine: read this (or read this with them) immediately.
It’s how lifelong fans of the genre are made.