When the english writer Christopher Samuel Youd died on Feb. 3 of this year, he was better known to the public by one of his many pseudonyms, John Christopher. That was the name under which he published his classic Tripod trilogy: The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1968) and The Pool of Fire (also 1968). The original three books were joined in 1988 by a prequel, When the Tripods Came, thereby adding the Tripod series to the great tradition of four-book trilogies.
The Tripod books are young-adult science-fiction novels. They're set in the year 2100, at which time, I'm sorry to say, the world will be ruled by 60-ft.-tall three-legged machines from another planet. The Tripods--anatomical descendants of the less successful tripedal invaders in H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds--have subjugated humanity and beaten us all the way back to a feudal society with medieval technology. To keep us there, the Tripods surgically bond metal mind-control caps to our skulls. The caps make us docile and easily controlled.
When I read the Tripod books as a 10-year-old, they stood out partly because Christopher's prose was so clear and elegant (and it holds up to this day) and partly because they were so extremely grim. I can still see and practically taste the toxic green air of the Tripods' domed cities, where a "perpetual green twilight" reigns. Rereading them now as an adult, I find they stand out for another reason: there are no girls in them.
O.K., there are girls in them. But hardly any, and they don't get cast in leading roles--the Tripods like to kidnap the pretty ones and take them back to their cities, where they're preserved like Sleeping Beauty, under glass. But the heroes, principally the hotheaded Will Parker, are all boys. There will be no love stories in the year 2100: it's all Tripod fighting, all the time.
The Tripod novels arrived at a tipping point for dystopian fiction. Up until then, novels of that kind tended to be for adults--Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz. But from the late 1960s on, books about mankind's miserable future began to skew younger. Now young-adult dystopian fiction is a flourishing industry in its own right. The Tripod novels were the shape of things to come.
Take the Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins, which has sold over 26 million copies since the (excellent) first book came out in 2008; a movie version will be released on March 23. Like the Tripod books, the Hunger Games series is set in a devastated future world where humanity is stuck with an oppressive regime, though in this case the oppressors are human too--a plutocratic bunch who lounge around in a cushy technopolis called the Capitol while the rest of humanity scratches out a living in 12 grim districts. Every year the ruling class holds a lottery for children ages 12 to 18, and the "winners" take part in a gladiatorial fight to the death. Our heroine, the lethal but still emotionally vulnerable Katniss, volunteers for the games to take her sister's place.