Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"The White Mountains" by John Christopher

I was recently reading a slightly older article from the New York Times entitled "Why We Read” (“A Good Mystery: Why We Read” by Motoko Rich, 11/25/07). The article wasn't so much about the reasons for reading, but it did talk a lot about books in childhood that inspire future reading.  I’m a big fan of science-fiction dystopias, and I think I can trace that attraction back to Christopher’s Tripod Trilogy, which begins with The White Mountains. I couldn’t say when I first read the novels (the book was published in 1967 though my edition was printed in the late ‘80s), but I do know that well before I was exposed to The Giver or Ender’s Game, there was The White Mountains.

Given the proliferation of young adult dystopias today, it’s almost surreal to read a story that, though published over forty years ago, could just as easily fit in with today’s narratives. Will, the novel’s protagonist, lives in our future in a society that operates more like the 1800s.  His people are without technology and machinery, yet they live a peaceful and contented existence.  What separates Will’s world from our colonial times is one major thing: the Tripods.  No one knows exactly where they came from, but what is known is that many years ago they overthrew the human race; now, when each human reaches the age of fourteen, he or she is “capped” by the Tripods and fitted with a metal head covering.

For the most part, the Tripods don’t interfere with the lives of the people in Will’s village.  They show up once a year to perform the capping, but otherwise the inhabitants of Wherton live unencumbered—but not free.  For what Will comes to realize (as happens in any good dystopia), is that the caps are the Tripods’ way of controlling people; they don’t control individuals’ every move, but they do ensure there will be no rebellion, uprising, or human advancement.

Even today, I think it’s a neat story, especially because Will isn’t reacting to brutal and overt tyranny from the Tripods.  Instead, he’s responding to the natural desire to be free and independent, even if that means forgoing the easier life.

The White Mountains follows the expected plot trajectory: Will’s movement from acceptance of the Tripods’ rule to his decision to run away prior to his capping; his long and arduous journey to elude the Tripods and find other “free men” living in the White Mountains.

Though I still love the story, there’s a lot to be desired in the novel as a whole.  First, there’s almost no character development.  Will’s recognition of the dystopia, which is usually the focus of modern books, takes only a few pages, and Will seems to have no uneasiness of leaving his village and family forever and going on the run. Secondly, the book is exposition heavy and fails to utilize moments of tension and excitement; Christopher instead keeps the book moving at a steady, constant pace.

If retooled to fit the expectations of characterization and pacing for modern novels, The White Mountains could be a great book.  As is, it’s probably more likely to appeal to nostalgic fans who read it as a kid than young people today.

1 comment:

  1. I read the trilogy several times as a young person and just picked it up again, curious as to whether or not I would like it as much as I did when I was a kid. So far so good. Of course, the books that follow are much better than The White Mountains