Posts Tagged ‘John Christopher’

There is a sub-genre of science fiction known as the ‘cosy catastrophe’, which I almost think qualifies as one of those great and useful categories only slightly let down by the fact that there’s virtually nothing to go into it. It was coined by Brian Aldiss for his history of SF, Billion Year Spree, with particular reference to the work of his near-contemporary John Wyndham, his definition running as follows: ‘The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.’ In later life he was particularly scathing about conclusion of The Day of the Triffids, in which the main characters find themselves compelled to go and live on (oh, the horror!) the Isle of Wight.

The thing is, that for all that Aldiss confidently pegs Wyndham as ‘the master of the cosy catastrophe’ it’s not as if this is a genre in which he was particularly active. Day of the Triffids probably qualifies, although there is a case to be made that this book is much less cosy than it initially appears to be (there are multiple suicides throughout the story), and there is a touch of it to The Kraken Wakes, too, although the catastrophe here is a protracted one and not especially comfortable for the protagonists (one should also probably mention the original, unpublished ending of the story, in which they are implied to die off-page and the book ends on an ominously ambiguous note). But The Chrysalids is post-apocalyptic, not catastrophic, The Midwich Cuckoos concludes with a potential disaster averted, and Trouble with Lichen, The Outward Urge, Chocky and Web don’t come close to resembling Aldiss’ metric.

Things get to the point where articles listing ‘Ten Great Cosy Catastrophe Novels’ end up stretching to include the likes of The Time Machine and Childhood’s End, two (great) books which are surely only linked by their interest in the future evolution of human beings (an idea which they take in radically different directions). Neither of them remotely resembles Aldiss’ idea of what a cosy catastrophe is, and one finds oneself wondering if this is a genre with a single bona fide exponent.

And then one stumbles across the bibliography of John Christopher (one of the pen names of Samuel Youd) and it initially looks like the motherlode. I first became aware of Christopher as a writer of what we nowadays call ‘dystopian YA fiction’ – perhaps most famously the Tripods books, but also the really excellent Prince in Waiting trilogy. Both of these are kind of post-apocalyptic – the Tripods story is set about a century after an alien invasion, while the Prince in Waiting books take place centuries after some kind of immense natural disaster has toppled civilisation – but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Christopher himself cheerfully admitted in later life to being the greatest serial killer in the history of literature, having at various points killed off civilisation through famine (The Death of Grass), a new ice age (The World in Winter), and a plague causing premature ageing (Empty World). It looks like we have found, at the very least, a pretender to Wyndham’s unasked-for throne.

And then one reads the books. Catastrophes? Certainly. Cosy? Well, there is the issue, isn’t it? Frankly, they are not: the writer Christopher Priest once produced his own take on the genre, entitled (if memory serves) The True Nature of the Catastrophe, suggesting that the real devastation was psychological, not social or physical. Christopher’s books are not cosy, because they are to a large extent about the effects of the calamities on the minds and personalities of their protagonists – John Custance in The Death of Grass starts off as a nice middle-class chap, but is willing to condone cold-blooded murder by the end of the book – civilisation has been lost forever, in more senses than one.


Christopher tackles this theme most directly, I think, in his 1965 book A Wrinkle in the Skin (the title is not the book’s strongest feature). The story opens on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, with a glimpse of the life of Matthew Cotter, reasonably contented small-holder. Cotter is almost totally self-sufficient in emotional terms, not feeling the need to develop strong attachments to anyone – the only exception being his grown-up daughter, who has moved to the mainland. The opening chapter features a dinner party, and a discussion of a series of immense earthquakes which have afflicted New Zealand and other remote places – discussion of a casual, disinterested kind.

But at the end of that first chapter, a colossal earthquake strikes the island – and, we are invited to infer, most of the world. Cotter survives through a sheer fluke, but virtually all buildings are levelled, the lie of the land itself is shifted, and – to Cotter’s initial disbelief – the English Channel is drained, exposing most of the sea-bed.

However, Cotter is not the only survivor, digging a pre-teenaged boy from the ruins of one house, before encountering another group under the thuggish leadership of a man named Miller. Cotter is a useful lieutenant to Miller, but Cotter doesn’t much care for the role, especially when he is constantly thinking of the possible fate of his daughter, somewhere on the mainland. In the end he and the boy gather their supplies and set off, walking across the sea-bed to England in search of her. But what awaits them there? Isn’t he just risking their lives in the futile pursuit of a fantasy?

A Wrinkle in the Skin doesn’t stint on the catastrophe, but it is one of the least cosy novels imaginable. One of the strong points of Christopher’s other books is the convincing detail used to depict the gradual falling away of the old order as civilisation gradually collapses – but in this one, everything is destroyed overnight, virtually in a matter of minutes. The majority of it takes place in a physical, social and moral wasteland, as Cotter and the boy encounter various other survivors and Cotter reflects on human nature and how people are responding to what eventually gets christened the Bust.

Once again, it’s the strength of the book’s characterisation and the articulation of its moral premise that make it memorable: there are at least two things going on throughout most of it, the first being the gradual erosion of Cotter’s sense of detachment from the people around him (in favour of his absent, idealised daughter) – he discovers the capacity to take responsibility for them, to genuinely care and achieve empathy and understanding. What gives the novel its distinctive flavour is the dark counterpoint to this theme – the building awareness that the humanity Cotter is starting to appreciate is essentially base and brutal. Cotter encounters a handful of lunatics, a few decent middle-class people, but mostly ruthless and amoral scum (it’s doubtless a sign of the book’s 60s origins that only one of the female characters has any agency worth mentioning or is characterised in more than the most superficial manner – but the character that is, is probably the strongest in the story). One character suggests the catastrophe has brought on a form of mass psychosis. For much of the book Cotter is ambling along relatively comfortably, and assumes the same is true for the others – but then April, the female character I just mentioned, quietly informs him that rape (of one form or another) is a fact of existence for all the women who’ve survived the Bust: five times, so far, for her, in a matter of only a couple of weeks.

Would things really be so bad? Pray God we never find out for real, but Christopher makes it all horribly and emphatically plausible. The book is fairly bleak throughout, but this sets the tone for the final section, which bears an uncanny resemblance to The Road as a man and a boy make their way through the desolation on a futile quest. Christopher’s writing does a good job of pointing up the distinction between the depressing and the tragic (this book is both, not always at the same time though); it gets so dark I almost considered bailing out before the end.

Perhaps it’s all a bit too close to reality – at least with triffids and the like, you can reassure yourselves that it’s never going to happen. But even Christopher backs away from what feels like the logical conclusion to the story. In the end Cotter repents of his foolish attachment to the dream of his daughter (not least because circumstances force him to) and there is the prospect of a somewhat happier life for the survivors in the time come. Only a prospect and a suggestion, though – it’s as though Christopher is aware this would be a total about-turn in the theme and tone of the book, and can only imply it as a possibility. Actually showing it would turn the novel into a rather hokey melodrama, and he’s too good a writer for that.

This is a pretty tough read, and conventional SF ideas are thin on the ground; it’s a lot less reserved and cerebral than a book by Wyndham, but grittier and more humane than some of the similar works that J. G. Ballard was producing at around the same time. It’s not the same kind of blitz of a thriller that The Death of Grass is, but it still shows off Christopher’s skill as a writer. Even so, you do come away wondering if we really would prefer our catastrophes to be just a bit cosy.

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When it comes to euphoniously-named book series, you can’t do much better than the Tripods Trilogy, and this isn’t even the most impressive thing about it. This series doesn’t seem to be nearly as well-known these days as it deserves to be – the TV adaptation is thirty years old now, and the film version is apparently stuck in Development Hell – but having recently revisited it I find it still has much to commend it.


The Tripod books were written by John Christopher in the late 1960s. Christopher, prior to this point, was probably best-known as a writer of actually pretty grim catastrophe-SF, somewhat in the same style as John Wyndham, but without the geniality or some of the interest in philosophy. In Wyndham’s books you never really feel the end of the world bite – in Christopher’s, you absolutely do.

So he was perhaps an odd choice for what’s essentially a YA book series, but he brings to it his usual bleakness of vision and strength-of-characterisation. The Tripods Trilogy isn’t apocalyptic but post-apocalyptic SF – the exact date of the setting is never made clear, but it seems to be, at earliest, the very late 21st century. Dating is difficult as ‘our’ civilisation has been subjugated by that represented by the Tripods, enormous walking machines, and life has returned to a near-feudal level.

Tripod dominance is ensured by Caps, cranial implants inserted into all adults when they reach adolescence: these ensure unquestioning obedience to the Tripods and whatever controls them. Christopher’s protagonist is Will, an impulsive young English boy, less than a year from his own Capping. When he learns of the existence of a group of free men, across the sea in the distant White Mountains (actually the Swiss Alps), he sets off on the long and dangerous journey to join them.

Christopher apparently wrote the first book, The White Mountains, on-spec, and you can kind of tell; it stands alone much more than the other two in the main trilogy. Apparently, while writing it he hadn’t even decided if the Tripods were the mounts of hostile extraterrestrials or agents of malevolent AIs; they remain enigmatically antagonistic throughout. This is really just an on-the-road adventure story, recounting various episodes between England and Switzerland – crossing the Channel, a memorable visit to the ruins of old Paris, and so on. There are various dangers, both physical and moral, and perhaps a little more depth of characterisation than one might expect. The climax is oddly subdued and abrupt, but on the whole this is a very readable short novel. Christopher never talks down to his audience, and if his prose style is never zippy or spectacular, it is utterly solid throughout.

This continues in the second book, The City of Gold and Lead, where things really start to get interesting. Will is selected for a mission to infiltrate the City of the Tripods (somewhere near where Berlin currently is, I think), and after various adventures along the way succeeds in getting himself chosen to serve the City. By this point Christopher had made his mind up and the Tripods turn out to be piloted by alien visitors.

No usual YA aliens, these: in a re-release of the book Christopher recalls the lengthy and serious thought process that went into designing the Tripod Masters and their civilisation. They are almost entirely non-humanoid, breathe a toxic atmosphere and exist under considerably higher gravity. The depiction of the city and its inhabitants are vivid, and Christopher builds on the strengths of the first volume – Will is no paragon, but given to rashness and feeling sorry for himself, and his lack of foresight nearly has fatal consequences for the whole mission. Needless to say he manages to escape from the City in time for the end of the volume, neatly setting up the final installment.

This is The Pool of Fire, which details the final desperate battle for the survival of the planet – by this point it’s been discovered that a starship is on the way to start the process of planoforming Earth into somewhere more suitable for the Masters, a process which will obviously prove fatal to all the native life-forms. Again, Christopher makes the brave choice to have Will much more of an onlooker than an actual hero – other people make nearly all the key decisions, and his only significant contribution comes about by chance. And Christopher’s usual bleakness of vision persists to the very end – no sooner has the threat of the Masters been lifted than the nations of Earth start threatening to slide back into futile internecine conflict. It is a memorably ambiguous conclusion to a consistently strong series, and the only reason I can think of for it not having been made into a movie – other than possible issues with the quasi-archaic overtones of some of the story – is that it only really features one female character of any significance, and she’s only in the first book. I can’t see the Diversity Police standing for that sort of thing.

Christopher went on to write more YA SF, much of it even darker – Empty World is his take on the ‘viral apocalypse’ theme, the disease in this case causing premature ageing, while the Prince In Waiting trilogy is set in another feudal Britain, this one post-nuclear. In parts, this makes the Tripods look like a musical comedy in terms of its tone, with a protagonist who starts off flawed and develops into a seriously nasty piece of work by the conclusion.

And then he had to go and spoil the glorious euphony of the Tripods Trilogy by writing another one, and a prequel at that. One gets the impression that When The Tripods Came was Christopher’s somewhat acerbic response to the unsatisfactory saga of the BBC’s adaptation of two-thirds of the trilogy, and the response it got from some quarters as to how unwieldy and low-tech the Tripods themselves are – how on Earth did these things manage to conquer the planet?

When The Tripods Came tells that story. It does not, if we’re honest, entirely match up with the account given by characters in the main trilogy – for instance, no-one in The White Mountains knows the nature of the Tripods, whereas everyone here (many years earlier) is never in doubt that they’re extraterrestrial in origin. And rather than mass manipulation of TV broadcasts, as stated in an earlier (later) book, the Masters here make their play by hijacking something called ‘The Trippy Show’, a programme which goes out at Saturday tea-times (like The Tripods adaptation) and features clumsy, cartoonish Tripods (like… oh, let’s not be needlessly cruel). (Nor does the book explain why, given they later effectively abandon Britain as a backwater, the Masters make one of their initial landings there.)

Given this is a tale of a largely-successful alien invasion and the end of civilisation as we know it, Christopher does not have to work hard to instill some bleakness into the story, as Tripod-worshipping cults spring up, leading to civil war and the final arrival of the Tripods themselves. The protagonist and his family are forced to flee Britain and head for Switzerland, where (we are invited to infer) they form the basis of the resistance group Will joins many years later. If anything, Christopher soft-pedals the impact of the story, which never quite grips as hard as you expect it to – the story plays idly with some historical parallels (‘Hail the Tripod!’ is the slogan of the hypnotised human turncoats) but doesn’t really do much with them.

Still, even off-form John Christopher is still very readable, and it makes for an interesting addendum to the series, if hardly an essential one. Right now I am contemplating making the TV series my next DVD box set purchase, for all its very obvious flaws. Maybe next year.


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Boy, they sure do like to do things big-style over in the States. Last week I spent some time banging on about discussing the wouldn’t-it-be-horrible-if… drama-documentary The Taking of Prince Harry, wherein said royal has a nasty time with the Taliban but eventually escapes. The British press were not impressed. This week, however, complete silence seems to have greeted Life After Armageddon, a vastly more lavish and actually slightly frightening wouldn’t-it-be-horrible-if… about the aftermath of a flu pandemic which offs an unspecified but significant percentage of the global population.

I suspect this is because a) this was an American show b) it was broadcast on Channel 5, which is still really the lightweight of the main UK networks and c) most people perceive this kind of thing as being the stuff of science fiction and thus Not Worth Worrying About. Certainly I myself sometimes feel like I’ve been vicariously enjoying the collapse of civilisation pretty much non-stop since I was seven, starting with John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, then proceeding fairly briskly through the work of John Christopher, Threads, The Stand, Dawn of the Dead, Survivors (70s version, of course) on tape and DVD, 28 Days Later, World War Z and…well, you get the idea. (During the 2000 fuel crisis, when the fabric of society seemed to shudder in a way it very seldom does, many people’s response was to dig out their bicycles and do a spot of panic-buying. Mine was to sit down and watch the Survivors episode Something of Value, which seemed thematically appropriate. I wonder who feels more foolish now.)

Well, this was a solidly put-together show, with a range of talking-head boffins popping up to give their opinion of exactly how we’re all going to die (possibly). I particularly enjoyed Dr Joseph Tainter and his sonorous delivery. Possibly because this was made for a credulous/American/Channel 5 audience, of course, it was felt necessary to illustrate whatever they were saying with the insertion of dramatised scenes from the life of Mr and Mrs Average of Los Angeles and their desperate attempts to flee the dead city and make a new life for themselves. Either the drama or the documentary would have worked fine on their own, to be honest – both together (particularly with the amount of recapping around the ad breaks) just made me feel rather patronised.

It served Mr and Mrs Average right for living in LA, if you ask me. To be honest, they and Average Junior were just a bit too naive and bland to really engage my sympathy, particularly when they started doing very silly things like heading into the Mojave Desert with no real destination in mind. The drama-plotline had to engage in some rather unconvincing jinks and swerves just to keep them from getting themselves killed some time before the conclusion of the show.

The thing about this programme, which seems to me to be the case with a lot of bad post-apocalyptic narratives, was that the main characters seemed to be miraculously untouched by the general collapse of society and moral standards, looking on in aghast horror as the new realities of existence came into hard focus. The gangs of raiders and ad hoc militias they fell foul of were treated as one-dimensional, bogeyman figures. These people would have had lives before the disaster too, but despite the fact that they, also, were simply doing their best to survive (and generally rather more successfully than the Averages!) they were basically dismissed by the tellers of the story.

We’re going off on a bit of a tangent here, but I was reminded of one of my favourite pieces of apocalyptic fiction, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass. In this story a virus causes a global famine, eventually leading to national governments ordering the use of nuclear weapons on their own major cities in order to cut down demand on food stocks. But what makes this story really special is the way in which the main character – very much akin to Mr Average at the story’s opening – forces himself to embrace the passing of the old order and its morality. By the end of the book he’s repeatedly committed murder, simply because it’s the only way he can be sure of keeping his family and friends alive, and he remains largely sympathetic throughout. This is a world away from the well-mannered catastrophes we’re normally presented with, especially on screen. A touch of that would have made Life After Armageddon a considerably more engaging and challenging viewing experience.

Then again, it was American TV, part-financed by Channel 5. I suspect challenging the audience did not appear on the list of programme goals. In the end this was a nicely-made riff on material that’s becoming slightly well worn – sometimes I think the only thing that’ll stop the flow of documentaries about armageddon is the onset of their subject matter. In which case, by all means keep ’em coming.


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