The Year of the Comet by John Christopher

chistopherj-yearofthecometThis is the first novel by science fiction author John Christopher (although he did publish a short story collection before this), who is most famous for The Death of Grass and The Tripods. He wrote a number of disaster novels, and the title of the book under review would lead you to believe that this is one of them. But it’s not. The story is set in a post-capitalist future where countries have been replaced by huge corporations known as “managerials.” They have names like Telecom, Atomics, etc. Each managerial provides an essential role in the running of the world. The life of a seemingly average scientist called Charles (our protagonist) is thrown into chaos when he finds that his research into diamonds is being very closely monitored. He is soon tossed into a confusing world of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. His seemingly unimportant research appears to be of immense value to the various managerials, for reasons that prove to be world transforming. In the background of the story we have the Cometeers, a curious religious cult who are focused on the slow approach of a comet to earth.

For a novel written in the 1950s, the story is quite prophetic in its prediction of the rise of television into a forum of banal entertainment that people consume in a zombie-like fashion. It could also be argued that the replacement of countries by corporations is a legitimate possibility. We already have vast multi-national corporations that are free to operate outside of any one particular country’s laws.

As entertainment, the novel was average. It definitely had its moments of tension and mystery, but there was a distinct lack of conflict going on for much of the story and I felt my attention waning. It looks as if Christopher had some political ideas he wanted to express, and he used a fictional narrative as a vehicle for that.

The Prince in Waiting Trilogy by John Christopher

christopherj-princeinwaitingThis volume brings together three short novels of around 150 pages each: The Prince in Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands, and The Sword of the Spirits. The saga is set centuries in the future, in a Britain that has recovered from a natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Civilisation somewhat resembles the feudal medieval period. Each city, walled off from all others, is individually governed by its prince. And in summer, cities go to war with each other, more for custom’s sake than for conquest. There is no king governing the land. Machines are forbidden, because of the Disaster, and all fighting is done with bows and swords, all travelling by horse. Among people, classes are divided into humans, dwarfs, and polymufs – those unfortunate enough to be born with mutations and whose role in life is confined to servitude.

Each city has its own Seer, who speaks on behalf of the Spirits – strange disembodied apparitations that appear to men in Seance Halls. Luke Perry, a young nobleman of the city of Winchester, is proclaimed by the Spirits to be Prince in Waiting, and it is propesied that he will become Prince of Princes, ruling the whole land. But what are these Spirits? Real beings from a higher plane, or something else? Luke is soon to find out.

The saga takes many twists and turns, involving politics, war, friendship, love, and betrayal. The reader is guided through several strange and unusual cultures, as Luke’s quest take him far from his city, crossing the Burning Lands, a volcanic area separating Luke’s homeland in the south from the land of the Wilsh in the north. As a book marketed for children, the content is really quite grown up. Luke himself is nothing like a child of our own culture, and in some ways I found it difficult to be sympathetic with his cause at times. Culture clash is a prevalent theme, and the reader is invited to observe that a custom is not necessarily right simply because it is one we happened to grow up with. Another theme is the two-edged sword of technology – its benefit to society measured against its use as a tool of conquest, not forgetting its use as a means to manipulate the “primitive” mind. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The whole story is not quite as epic as Christopher’s The Tripods, but holds its own as a thoroughly engrossing tale, one that gets more interesting with each subsequent book. There’s enough good story material in here to span one of those big multi-volume sagas that are typically over 300 pages per book, as is the trend with modern fantasy writing. But I much prefer Christopher’s brevity. The Prince in Waiting Trilogy is an intelligent, gritty, violent children’s fantasy saga, and if that doesn’t sound politically correct, it’s not meant to. Recommended for all ages.

Empty World by John Christopher

A teenage boy loses his family in a car crash and is taken in by his grandparents. Some months later he loses so much more – everyone. An unusual disease breaks out in Europe, first affecting the old, but then causing rapid ageing in the young. Attempts are made to contain the disease, but due to the fact that the symptoms don’t show up until days after infection, it spreads across continents, eventually wiping out the world. There are a tiny fraction of survivors, all in their early to mid teens – an age where the immune system and the development of the human organism are in a sort of optimal balance.

This sounds like a fairly typical apocalyptic tale, but the strength is in the telling. It’s the story of one teenage boy and his struggle to survive and find companionship. This may be marketed as a children’s book, but there is nothing cotton-wooly about the events that transpire. You would be hard-pressed to find a children’s movie as harrowing as this. Christopher portrays life with a keen sense of realism, examing loss, the hostility of life, and the relationships between young people that have been freed from the restraining guidance of adults. In the end, what wins – our humanity or inhumanity? A short, strong novel – one of my favourites by this author.

The Lotus Caves by John Christopher

When John Christopher wrote The Tripods trilogy in the 1960s, it was a turning point for the author. As one who had written only for adults in the the earlier part of his career, he now wrote almost exclusively for children. The Lotus Caves is the children’s novel that immediately followed The Tripods.

This is a moon adventure, something that perhaps has limited appeal today, but would have been really exciting in the year of publication, 1969, the same year as the first manned moon landing. From a 60s perspective, the novel envisions a fairly gritty possible future, with a mining colony established on the moon and entire families living within a huge domed structure called The Bubble. Lives are a little colourless in comparison to Earth. Commodities are always in limited supply, so lifestyles of conservation are encouraged, where every little thing is important – in stark contrast to the affluence that’s possible on Earth. An artificial lake with its own fish is provided, to make the families feel more at home. But for some of the young, the moon has always been their home. Born there, and destined to remain until their parents have finished their contracts, the young nevertheless long to visit the blue world they’ve only ever seen in books and videos.

Marty is one such teenager. Bored with life in The Bubble, he ends up getting into a bit of mischief with his new friend Steve. Discovering a passkey accidentally left in the ignition of a lunar crawler, the boys take hold of a rare opportunity to travel far and wide across the lunar landscape. Their first destination is First Station, the now abandoned predecessor to The Bubble, where they discover the diary of a colonist who went missing under mysterious circumstances, telling stories of a vision of a strange impossible flower on the moon. Marty and Steve go in search of the mystery. From that point on in, we leave mundane science fiction behind and grasp the reins of fantasy. For under the surface of the moon is a bizarre plant-like entity who welcomes the boys and never wants them to leave.

When I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but wonder if Christopher’s favourite theme of mind-manipulation would make an appearance, since I had already seen featured in The Tripods, The Guardians, The Prince in Waiting, and A Dusk of Demons. Yes, it’s here, too. Perhaps “social conditioning” is a better word to describe Christopher’s obsession. This time the conditioning comes not from a metal mesh embedded in the brain, but from an external force that obtains obedience by creating feelings of peace and happiness. It’s the human will versus the emotions in a battle for freedom.

A criticism purely on personal taste: I found the story a bit too wacky. I’m not a great fan of the fantasy genre, and The Lotus Caves ultimately abandoned its sci-fi beginnings in favour of something completely “out there.” That said, I found the novel to be an enjoyable worthwhile adventure.

The Tripods by John Christopher

This volume contains four short novels which are also available separately. It used to be regarded as a trilogy (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire), but the inclusion of a fourth book, entitled When the Tripods Came has changed things a little – for the worse, in my opinion, chiefly because it is referred to as book 1 of 4.

If you are new to this series, I insist that you ignore the prelude book and jump straight in at The White Mountains. The author originally wrote this as book 1, and that’s how it should stay. I’d better tell you why I feel so strongly about it. When you begin The White Mountains, you are presented with a strange world. It appears to be mankind’s past, a couple of centuries ago. People use a horse and cart to get around, work in mills, etc. Everything is as it should be, except for the presence of immense metal machines taller than houses, which stomp about the countryside commanding the worship of mankind. Strange artifacts from man’s past make an appearance, familiar to us but not to the people in the book, giving use a clue that this is perhaps not the past at all, but a very strange future, where most of our technological advancements have curiously disappeared. The mystery of the past is one of the things that makes The White Mountains such a great read. Deal with When the Tripods Came after you’ve read all the others, just to fill in the blanks.

I was first introduced to The Tripods through the BBC television series that was made in the mid-eighties. I absolutely loved it. Sadly the BBC only ever filmed, The White Mountains and The City of Gold and Lead, but I was glad to be able to read the final volume in print, to find out what became of the heroes and their world. I don’t want to say too much about The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire, in case I spoil anything. But I will say that this is the perfect adventure story, and despite the fantastical elements, it has a very mature and thought-provoking ending. Currently the most read book on my shelf.

A Dusk of Demons by John Christopher

christopherj-duskdemons.jpgBen is a boy who lives on the sparsely populed “Western Isles” of the United Kingdom. It’s not long before we realise that this is not the Britain we are familiar with. Life is primitive, technological advancement forbidden, and the people are governed by a strange religion with a sinister god called “The Dark One.” Is this the long-distant past? It is pure fantasy? Could it even be the future? If so, how did the world get like this? Figuring those questions out is what makes this book interesting.

Sadly though, the book fails on the drama score. Ben is forced to move to mainland Britain, where the religion is much more intense and Demons appear to be real beings, much to Ben’s horror. The boy gets embroiled in an adventure across the country, but rarely seems to get into much danger. Not very exciting.

The final chapter of the book answers all the questions about this strange world and its religion, but it’s over and done with so quickly that you barely have time to reflect upon the implications of what Christopher is saying.

If you’ve read this author’s The Prince in Waiting and The White Mountains, you’ll find an old theme re-visited here: control of the masses. This seems to be a hobby-horse of the author, but he’s not really saying anything new this time round.

The Guardians by John Christopher

The Guardians is set in a near-future society which has two class divisions: you either live in an area called the Conurb or the County.

Life in the Conurb is fast. People work hard for a living and play hard. Rioting is a common sight on the streets, and the primary means of entertainment in this overcrowded society is holovision (presumably what television is destined to become). Reading is largely a thing of the past.

So we come to the County. People live in quaint houses surrounded by acres of lush grassland. Transportation over distances is largely a matter of horse-riding; there’s not a car in sight. People live in luxury and have time to pursue hobbies of one sort or another. A tall, electrified fence separates the County from the Conurb, stretching across the entire country, and no one on either side lives within several miles of it. There aren’t many attempts to cross this border. Most people are content in their differing ways of life. So why rock the boat? you might ask. Why seek to change the world when everybody’s happy with things the way they are?

This is the question which faces a boy called Rob, a young Conurbian whose father has recently died. Also motherless, and faced with the harrowing prospect of life in a children’s home, Rob sets off on a journey for the County, where he hopes to make a better life for himself. After a few minor scrapes, Rob manages to get across the border, and is taken in by a kind family. No sooner has he had a taste of the good life, when he hears of plans to storm the fence and end the division.

I love adventure stories that involve a journey. Christopher’s The White Mountains stands out as a wonderful example. Where The Guardians fails is in Rob’s motivations. Travelling across the country selfishly seeking a less larsh life can hardly compare to The White Mountains, where three boys seek flee from a society that is intent on stripping them (and everyone else aged fourteen) of their humanity by means of a mind-control device. Actually, this theme of mass mind-control is visited in the closing chapters of The Guardians, and the more of Christopher’s novels I read, the more that I realise that this is a theme which is close to the author’s heart. However, I have to say The White Mountains does it much better.

Another problem with The Guardians is that Rob takes a back seat for much of the story, merely observing the actions of others rather than carrying the story forward himself.

I struggled with this novel. It just didn’t have the pace and excitement of some of Christopher’s other writings.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

What a strange name for a novel, particularly a novel of global disaster. Not so strange when John Christopher explains how grass is a part of our eco-system and how its absence would have a disastrous effect, ultimately on mankind’s food supply. Mass starvation leading to panic; panic leading to brutality; brutality leading to survival – for some.

The story centres around a family travelling across England by car. Their destination is a walled-in community owned by the protagonist’s brother – one man who was smart enough to prepare for the disaster before it struck. The adventure is grim, filled with violence and murder. The main question posed is this: how far are you willing to go in order to protect your own family? How mean are you willing to be when it comes to the choice between the death of a stranger or the death of a loved one?

This is bold, gripping stuff. Highly recommended.