The White Mountains: One of the first dystopian novels for kids

The White Mountains by John Christopher children's fantasy audiobook reviewsThe White Mountains by John Christopher

The White Mountains, the first book in John Christopher’s TRIPODS series for children, has been sitting on my TBR list (and in my Audible library) forever. I was finally inspired to pick it up when Gary K. Wolfe, in his series of lectures entitled How Great Science Fiction Works, mentioned the book as probably the first YA dystopian novel (though Middle Grade is more accurate, I’d say).

The White Mountains was published in 1967 and takes place in an alternate version of our world where aliens called Tripods have conquered Earth and enslaved humans. (These tripods were inspired by the Martians in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a fact that most readers will notice immediately, but as Christopher explains in the introduction to the sequel, he didn’t realize where the image had come from until after The White Mountains was published.) The aliens keep humans docile by “capping” them with a device that is affixed on their heads when their heads stop growing in late puberty. The adults who’ve been capped are eager to please the Tripods and they indoctrinate the children to look forward to their capping day.

That day is coming soon for Will, a curious boy who lives in England. Will has his doubts about this whole set-up and starts to get nervous when his cousin Henry, a rambunctious and cantankerous boy, becomes meek and submissive after his capping. Will’s suspicions are confirmed when he meets a stranger who is not capped who tells Will that a group of rebels is living in the White Mountains and encourages him to join them there. So, before his capping day, Will runs away and heads for the mountains. Henry follows. When they cross the English Channel and travel through France, they’re joined by a very bright boy who is afraid to be capped. On their way to the mountains, they travel through the ruins of “ancient” human cities, are puzzled by the signs of culture and technology they find there (e.g., cars, Metro stations, mannequins, jewelry), and wonder about the architects and inventors who were responsible for creating such phenomena. They also meet other societies that have come under control of the Tripods.

The White Mountains has a great premise. It’s hard to imagine a young reader who won’t immediately sympathize with Will’s plight and root for him to escape the fate of being capped. Losing our identities, personalities, and sense of self-determination must be a universal fear, and John Christopher certainly makes us feel this dread.

The White Mountains is a short exciting adventure — only 4.5 hours long in my Audible version. The two sequels which continue Will’s story (The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire), and a fourth book which is a prequel (When the Tripods Came) are similarly short. I like the narrator, William Gaminara, who gives a spirited performance.

At the beginning of The White Mountains, there’s an interesting introduction by John Christopher in which he explains that the TRIPODS series came about when, in the 1960s, a publisher had asked him to write a science fiction novel for kids. He decided to set the story on Earth instead of Mars or Venus. He said that when he was a boy (he was born in 1922), what we didn’t know about our own solar system evoked an immense sense of wonder, so it was common to have science fiction stories set on Mars or Venus. Then, by the 1960s, we knew that there were no more habitable planets in our system, and the sense of wonder faded. That’s why he wanted to set his story on Earth.

He also tells us he had previously written 30 novels for adults and was at the point in his career when publishers accepted his manuscripts immediately. Therefore, he was shocked with Susan Hirschman, the editor from Macmillan, rejected his first attempt at a children’s novel, and then even his second. He credits Hirschman’s tutelage, and children’s editors in general, for the success of his children’s stories.

The Tripods — (1967-1988) Ages 9-12. Note: Book 4, When the Tripods Came, is a prequel. Monstrous machines rule the Earth, but a few humans are fighting for freedom in this repackaged start to a classic alien trilogy ideal for fans of Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave. Will Parker never dreamed he would be the one to rebel against the Tripods. With the approach of his thirteenth birthday, he expected to attend his Capping ceremony as planned and to become connected to the Tripods—huge three-legged machines—that now control all of Earth. But after an encounter with a strange homeless man called Beanpole, Will sets out for the White Mountains, where people are said to be free from the control of the Tripods.

 


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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7 comments

  1. I loved these when I was a kid.

  2. sandy ferber /

    Sounds good! I hope to be able to review Christopher’s “A Wrinkle in the Skin” for FanLit one day soon…IF I can get my hands on a copy….

  3. I felt like the book treated the boys as people and didn’t condescend to them, or to the young reader who was me. And I loved the inventiveness — it was a type of book I was used to because Andre Norton had a couple of future-changed-earth books too.

  4. I know some kids (and former kids) who would love these!

  5. I first came across The Tripod books when I was aged twelve in the mid-1980s and, as you can imagine, I remember being fascinated by this strange idea that when you reach the age of fourteen you had to be capped. That this must happen to boys when they finally reach their fourteenth birthdays – before they can begin to think and to reason for themselves. Indeed the Masters even considered capping all boys at the age of twelve, not only to be sure of it, but also because a younger child is less resistant and less questioning. More curious and thus more willing. In the end they decide against doing this as a child’s skull is not yet fully formed or developed. Capping Day is therefore a mandatory annual “coming-of-age” ritual for each and every boy. One in which they must all take part. Thus the head of each son and daughter is shaved before they are all assembled together to be capped. One by one. Every child is proudly presented by their parents as a new slave for The Tripods. As I child I could not understand why parents would do this. Until I realised the parents had been capped when they were children. After being presented before The Tripod, the boy is lifted up gently inside the capsule so that a cap of metal wiring can be successfully enmeshed and embedded deeply into his skull and brain. Interestingly before children are capped they often question it. “Why? I do not see why it has to happen. I would sooner stay as I am.” Indeed what teenager has not said to himself: “I will not believe in what adults believe in. I will rip up the rules of society. I will never conform like them.” Therefore as the child is taken to be capped he must be very gently reassured, encouraged and, most importantly of all, made curious by the adults as to what Capping is. “You can’t understand now, but you will understand after it happens. I can’t describe it. You won’t be hurt. As a person I am happy now.” Indeed when boys are returned to their parents, it soon becomes clear they no longer question as teenagers but are happy and contented adults. Yet another generation of future slaves successfully programmed and educated to serve, obey and even worship the current social, economic and political order. Their new Master. Their God, their Ruler, their State. Sound familiar. I recommend that parents today do encourage their children to read these subversive books. Particularly boys aged twelve.

    • I agree, Neil. I would have loved this series when I was 12. I think I might purchase these for some youngsters I know.

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