Future Tense

The Biggest Mistake Made by Sci-Fi Writer John Christopher, Dead at 89

British writer John Christopher (real name Samuel Youd) passed away earlier this month at the age of 89. Christopher was best known for the Tripod series, the Hunger Games of the late ‘60s, in which scrappy rebels take on an evil central power—in this case, an alien race—that has enslaved the masses.

By coincidence, I recently reread the Tripod books—at least, the three original ones, skipping the hohum prequel. It had been more than a decade since I last read the Tripod trilogy, so a couple of weeks ago I bought some used copies of The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire and prepared myself for an indulgent weekend of nostalgia.

Now that Christopher has died, I rather wish I hadn’t.

The Tripod books were the first sci-fi that I fell in love with and primed me to later read Arthur C. Clarke, among others. Christopher’s best-known trilogy tells the story of an Earth, in the future but regressed to medieval-style tech-free living, ruled by enormous three-legged alien machines. Metal caps, implanted on each person’s head around the age of 14, keep the human population docile and content enough. Being Capped is an important coming-of-age moment, a bit like a bar mitzvah but with a lobotomy. Before our hero, Will, can be Capped and settle into an ordinary life in his English village, he is recruited to a resistance movement based in the Alps.

Because adults are given a Cap at the age of 14, the best hope for humanity lies within the young, plus a small band of free men who, too, escaped in their youth to the Alps. I say “free men” deliberately, and with not a little sadness.

Upon rereading, I was struck by something I had noticed only in passing as a child: a bizarre lack of female characters. Our hero, Will, indulges in a brief crush on a French girl, Eloise, in the first book, The White Mountains, and his attraction to her leaves him briefly considering abandoning his quest to join the Cap-free rebels in the Alps. Eloise, her mother, and Will’s mother are the only female characters to open their mouths; few others even warrant passing mention. When Will himself becomes a recruiter for the resistance, he mentions only looking for boys of rebellious nature. Had Katniss Everdeen crossed his path, Will wouldn’t have considered at her as a potential Tripod slayer.

The three women who are allowed to speak in the book each represents the temptation to live an easy life and not join the fight for humanity’s freedom. (Eloise makes a brief, mute reappearance in the second book, The City of Gold and Lead, in which Will goes undercover as a slave in a Tripod city.) Oh, we women are always luring men into complacency.

To have found that one of my favorite childhood books was sexist in this casual, negligent way was alarming. (The offhand racism—referring to Asian members of the resistance as “little yellow men”—is equally disturbing.)

In interviews, Christopher blamed a woman, of course, for the oversight: “In the early stages of writing children’s books,” he told the website Berger & Burger, “an experienced lady editor said that while girls read boys’ books the converse was not true, and I may have been influenced by that.” But I doubt the “lady editor” meant that boys would not read books in which there were any meaningful girl characters at all.

Though I adored Christopher at the time, I wonder whether the missing girl characters might have played a role in the hiatus I took from science fiction for more than a decade, from my early teens to late 20s.  Science fiction has made enormous strides from the late ‘60s—when Christopher wrote the Tripod books—to today in welcoming female characters and writers into the community. And as science fiction fans celebrate Christopher’s legacy—and it is one well worth a toast, despite that one massive flaw—it’s also worth celebrating how far the field has come in welcoming female authors, characters, and fans.