FROM JASON’S OVERFLOWING BOOKCASE — If you survived a low-level college literature course, or ever read Watchmen, then you’ve probably at least heard of Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias.
The short verse — written 191 years ago today — describes a broken statue of Ramesses the Great, ruler of Egypt, and the desolate desert it inhabits. Shelley’s theme is that the pharaoh’s empire and all the work of his 66-year reign are now turned to dust. In the wind.
A month after Shelley’s poem was published in 1818, his friend Horace Smith published a competing poem of the same name and subject. The second half of his work wonders whether centuries from now, the “modern” civilization will appear just as anciently alien to our descendants as Ramesses’ appears to us.
“We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”
I bring this up because I just finished re-reading John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, science fiction novels written between 1967 and 1968 for young readers. I first encountered these books about age nine, and my wife was clever enough to hunt them down as stocking-stuffers this Christmas. I was very happy with her.
Like much sci-fi and fantasy novels of the 20th century, Christopher’s are re-skinnings of the old Joseph Campbell heroic monomyth. The young male protagonist, Will, is discontent with the tripods, huge War of the Worlds-inspired machines who rule over a post-apocalyptic Earth, and must journey the path of “the Hero With a Thousand Faces.”
The set-up: the tripods graft mind-controlling mesh “caps” onto the heads of humans at age 14. The caps keep people complacent and incurious, causing society to revert to pre-industrial agrarianism. There are no more large cities. There are no more machines. There is no more war, but neither is there invention or exploration.
At the start of the first book in the series, The White Mountains, a vagrant named Ozymandias approaches Will and tells him freedom fighters still exist who fight the tripods. They live in the Swiss Alps; following Campbell’s formula, Ozymandias charges Will to leave his tiny English village and quest across France to find the last human stronghold.
Like the hunter of Smith’s poem, Will and his incidental traveling companions come across the ruins of a 20th century city — not London, but Paris, destroyed 100 years past. They are amazed by horseless carriages, a subway system, and wrist watches that seem like magic to their limited technological understanding.
These books have a real My Side of the Mountain vibe, in that they focus on pre-teenage boys who choose to live apart from establishment and provide for themselves. (I’m sure I will end up writing someday about how much I love that book.) Along the way, Will and his friends are forced to contemplate the value of humanism and self-determinism. They have to decide whether it’s better to embrace their own manifest destiny with its inevitable pitfalls and pain, or to have the tripods decide humanity’s destiny in exchange for peace and security.
And you know what ol’ Benjamin Franklin said about that: “He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.” It’s funny how science fiction tends to be progressive along those lines, instead of regressive like religion.
That gave me a lot to chew on at all of nine years old. And there’s no shame in reading these books as an adult, either. If you like them, there is also a prequel titled When the Tripods Came, which explores how the tripods used subliminal messages to spark the initial takeover of Earth. It was written 20 years after the launch of the series; I recommend reading them in the order in which they were published.