Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The White Mountains

John Christopher The White Mountains (1967)
Annoyingly it turns out that I almost read this one when I was a kid, back when I belonged to the age group for which it was specifically written. I almost read it in so much as that I borrowed it from Kenilworth public library. My granddad used to take me there presumably in the hope of my developing a taste for books; and I did develop a taste for books, but not necessarily for reading them if they had no pictures inside and weren't related to something on telly, as this one didn't and wasn't, leaving just the starkly vivid cover of the Hamish Hamilton hardback to imprint itself on my slightly guilty consciousness.

As I read The White Mountains it took me a while to recognise it as the thing I once almost read, which I recalled only as a cover and a vague hint of heavily recycled H.G. Wells. I understood there had been a television series made of it at some stage, but that was after I left home so I never saw the thing.

Anyway, this book is fucking great, and I really wish I'd made the effort to read it back then. The inspiration drawn from H.G. Wells  is massive and obvious in so much as that the Tripods are his war machines lifted wholesale from War of the Worlds - inscrutable three legged mechanical alien tosspots differentiated only by their tendency to enslave rather than to exterminate - and yet the setting they inhabit is so distinctly its own thing that you don't really notice. This could be the sequel to Wells' story about three hundred years down the line had a few of the Tripods developed some sort of space Lemsip, but it doesn't really matter that it isn't.

The White Mountains describes future humanity reduced to a semi-feudal, effectively mediaeval existence as told through the eyes of its protagonist, a young boy soon to be Capped. Capping is what happens in this world when you reach the age of fourteen, it being some sort of implant performed by the Tripods designed to keep you compliant and docile as you reach maturity. Naturally our boy is suspicious and decides to run away from home, to seek the White Mountains where, so he's been told, humanity lives free beyond the reach of the invaders; and the White Mountains turn out to be somewhere in France, thus entailing all sorts of moderately harrowing adventures as our boy crosses land and even sea to get there.

The message is simple and is delivered without either sermonising or, conversely, any doubt of there being a message, namely concerning a healthy distrust of authority and the value of asking questions. This applies to the Tripods, but more so to the ruling human classes, those sanctioned by the aliens. Whilst the Tripods are terrible, they remain remote and mysterious, more in the line of an explanation for the shape of this blindly obedient society than as your traditional massed forces of alien evil. One of the most challenging choices to be made comes when our guy realises how much easier it would be to settle comfortably amongst the French aristocracy with whom he takes shelter.

I had travelled a long road since leaving the village, not only in hard reality but in my attitude towards people. More and more I had come to see the Capped as lacking what seemed to me the essence of humanity, the vital spark of defiance against the rulers of the world. And I had despised them for it—despised even, for all their kindness and goodness to me, the Comte and Comtesse.

But not Eloise. I had thought her free, like myself. I might even have come to the idea—its beginnings, I think, were in my mind already—that when we set off once more for the White Mountains, there might not be three of us, but four. All this was rendered futile by the sight of her bare head. I had come to think of her as my friend: perhaps more. But now I knew that she belonged, irretrievably, body and soul, to the enemy.

It's a children's book as children's books should be - in my opinion - defined by a focus on the sort of characters with whom younger readers will most likely identify without any sacrifice in quality, without talking down to anyone, and with some sort of actual content, something important which is communicated beyond just having a load of trainee wizards flying around for the sake of it.

I'm pretty sure I would have enjoyed this as much when I was eight as I have done at fifty, and had I done so it might have got me into the habit of reading something other than Terrance fucking Dicks, but never mind.

The one I almost read.

1 comment:

  1. I recently read 'The Guardians' another children's book by Christopher which was similarly terrific, about a utilitarian dystopia. I was expecting him to tone it down from his usual adult stuff but the plot was just as unflinching as his adult stuff and although less explicit, there was a lot of implied stuff that was pretty shocking. It was also one of the most thought provoking novels I read for a while and like you, I wish I'd discovered him earlier. His book The World in Winter is also particularly good