11 October 2016

Books: The Tripods: The Pool of Fire by John Christopher (1967)

Much like the events of 9/11 when the United States and with help from other countries, who unified to take on those whom attacked America, one of the underling aspects of John Christopher’s Tripod series has been that while what these aliens did was horrible, it made the “free men” of the world unite one enemy and if we defeat those invaders can we learn from the mistakes that lead to them? And his question –which was always there in those three books-, was could we put aside our differences and actually work towards a more utopian society, maybe something on the idea perpetrated by Gene Roddenberry and his Federation of Planets? Of course, while some good things have come from those attacks, alliances both new and made stronger, we as a planet remain divided. Our Great Schism shows through this current election cycle and is bound to get uglier before it gets better.

While Christopher’s final coda comes clearly through at the end, The Pool of Fire has much to do before it gets there:

We learned in The City of Gold and Lead that the Masters are awaiting a huge ship to arrive on Earth to implement their “final solution”, if you will, on the carbon based life forms that infest the planet: terra forming the planet so the Masters no longer have to live in the three large cities (which always seemed to me not a lot) and could roam the entire world freely. The good part is that the ship is not due for at least four years, giving the resistance time to plan their next steps: Will and Fritz spend a year traveling through Asia recruiting freedom-minded boys to their cause. Then Will helps the Resistance capture a Tripod and kidnap a living Master for their scientists to study. Will serves as the Master's prison guard, and inadvertently makes a discovery: alcohol incapacitates the Masters. That leads to a plan: small teams will sneak into the Masters' domed cities and dump alcohol into the city water supply. Will and Fritz are chosen to lead the attack on the domed city in Germany.  That attack succeeds. The Masters are incapacitated, and the Resistance cracks the city domes, asphyxiating the Masters in Earth's oxygen atmosphere. 

There is more to the story, there are setbacks before (the forgone conclusion all these series have) the final victory, but ultimately the best part of the book is at the end, with the authors bleak coda. 

But before I talk about that, I want to mention that while I found the idea of the Tripods, the Masters interesting, for being so advanced –space travel and mind control and other wondrous things- they failed to understand humans. They were naive to think that once human emotions of violence were suppressed with the Capping that they would be forever docile. There had been some disagreement between them as to an age when a child (mainly men, which I found oddly annoying) became too rebellious –some felt it earlier than the current 14 years of age, but in the end this plot thread was dropped. I also found the idea that failed Cappings on certain humans, the ones that became the vagrants, another of their failures to follow-up on sort of predicted their ultimate fall. 

While the TV series versions set the first book in 2089 and the second in 2090, and with the third (if it had been made) most likely in 2091, Christopher did one wise thing, which was not to say how far in the future these books are set. Thus it makes themes universal, plus it gets around any technological advances that have taken place in the years that would to come, though I’m assuming the author would’ve never guessed his series would forever remain in print. 

Of course, as Christopher noted in the 35th anniversary version of The White Mountains, by the time the proposal to write the Tripod series, he was sort of tired of the science fiction genre he had been writing in for a while. “The publisher”, he wrote, “wanted the future; I was more interested in the past.” Which was how the idea of taking the elements of the “future” and setting them on a future Earth that, more or less, resembled a medieval time period of England (something Doctor Who was already doing in the 1960s) made him interested in doing the series. 

Like the previous two books, there is a lot of stuff that is condensed (at the time, these “children’s” books were designed to short, which, good or bad, has changed in the last 50 years); sometimes we only get brief sentences about things that spans months or years. I mean, I would’ve found it interesting to explore Will (ever the flawed character, and one constant through the books) and Fritz’s year long journey to find help to overthrow the Masters, or Beanpole’s scientific studies on how to defeat the Masters –along with how they found and got an air army going with war planes that got left behind. And as I mentioned, the adaptations of the first two books were padded, but I suspect what was added –the action, the creation of lacking female characters and what not- was more or less designed to appeal to the TV demographic than story function. 

But the final question of the story is still relevant today as it was some fifty years ago: Having mastered the Masters, can humanity now master itself?

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