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.