In memoriam: Christopher Youd, a.k.a. John Christopher

>> Monday, February 06, 2012

This is the kind of thing Twitter is good for: but for Twitter, I don't think I would have heard that Christopher Youd passed away last week.

Only, of course, I had no idea who Christopher Youd was; or, to be more accurate, I think I'd heard he was Christopher Youd but in my brain he will always by John Christopher, the pseudonym he used for a lot of post-apocalyptic juvenile science fiction back in the day. I guess the proper term these days would be "YA" or "young adult", though I read Christopher's Tripods Trilogy and Prince In Waiting Trilogy when I was a bit less than a young adult, probably no older than junior high and it might even have been late in elementary school.

I haven't revisited those books in decades, and it's hard to say how much of an influence they might have been. But the Tripods books in particular are lurking down there in the bottom of my brain and bubble up periodically even now. This was a series of books, for those unfamiliar with them or the various comic and television adaptations that have been done, in which aliens have reduced humanity to a medieval state, controlling the humans' brains through permanent headgear called "caps" that are installed during a person's teenage years, patrolling the landscape in gigantic Wellsian tripedal walking machines and ruling from three great cities of "gold and lead" scattered around the world. The heroes of the books are a group of adolescent boys who run away from their home villages just prior to having their heads scrambled by the alien masters, eventually joining a group of human rebels in Switzerland, later infiltrating the alien cities and ultimately leading an epic assault upon them using the intelligence they gathered inside.

What sticks in the head for me is some surprisingly primal horror for a series of books aimed directly at kids. The aliens steal your brains when you turn fourteen: the horror of having your thoughts controlled and your personality stripped away, and not being you anymore is something that still sticks with me, though these days it's the fear of brain injury or eventual Alzheimer's that has replaced the idea of mind control. (It also occurs to me only now, looking at the age for capping, that the whole thing is an interesting metaphor for puberty, no? And there's a basic horror there: how much of body horror in general goes back to the major physical and mental transformations we all face--puberty, pregnancy, old age, et al.?) The ginormous alien walkers have flailing tentacles that are used to sweep up candidates for capping, escaping fugitives, anything else they fancy; and I still have this vertiginous fear, not uncommon, I'm sure, of falling, of being swept up, of being lifted from my feet, of being out of control of my movements. (And while I've never been afraid of flying, ironically enough, isn't the root of that phobia the fact that your life is placed in the hands of a pilot, faceless ground mechanics, and gravity?) The alien colonies, domed cities containing the aliens' poisonous atmosphere and calibrated to provide the aliens with artificially-increased gravity and intense heat comparable to their homeworld speaks to indelible fears of suffocation and drowning. (And kudos, upon reflection, to Youd for making his alien invaders aliens, monstrous-looking creatures comfortable in an inimical environment.)

I can't remember anything about the quality of Youd's prose or characterization. But I have these indelible memories of the story he told, and specifically of these basic horrors. And these are books, I repeat, that I read around three decades ago. Thirty years is a long time to occasionally imagine the terror of a sinuous arm grasping one round the waist, sweeping one up into the black maw of a striding metal monster to have one's head shaved for the installation of a prosthetic lobotomy. I'm re-imagining it now, as I write this.

As much as I enjoyed Lewis' Narnia books and L'Engle as a child around the same age-range, and as much as I enjoyed the Rowling and Pullman books as an adult, I have to think that I'm not sure anyone went as far as Youd did in the Tripod stories to peddle basic human fears in a way that was serious and unadulterated, a manner that took it for granted that his audience ought to be able to read something like that and be appropriately unnerved by it. There's probably someone else doing it; I don't read a lot of YA lit, to be honest, and I'm sure some reader can point out an author who is as nasty as Youd was. So maybe he wasn't unique, but I would say he was something of a trailblazer in that regard.

For that matter, I'm not sure I can think of another children's (or YA or whatever) author other than L'Engle who took a young audience so seriously all around. The Tripod books weren't just about BEM's stealing brains, they were also about individuality, freedom, community--this was a series that actually ended by raising the question of whether the human race wasn't arguably better as aliens' slaves (after defeating the alien invaders, the victorious humans almost immediately begin squabbling, re-drawing old national borders, and rattling assorted sabers they've managed to come up with). Youd was interested in ideas about ecology and history and science. While his aliens were certainly pulpy and in some respects derivative, Youd also went to some trouble world-building them: it wasn't enough to borrow tripod war machines from Wells, Youd needed to give his readers a reason the aliens were hidden away and mysterious, nor was it good enough to just use pointy-eared-humanoids as so many would have--so we have tripedal, three-obsessed creatures living in an exotic environment that has to be sealed up and hidden away. I think there's a lesson there for anyone wanting to write a kid's book: treat your audience seriously, and you might give them something to remember for three decades and running.

(Maybe "Young Adult" is less a marketing ploy and more an inspiration.)

I haven't mentioned the Prince-In-Waiting series. Truth is, I remember finding them a little derivative of his own work (another post-apocalypse-reduced-to-medieval-living setting?). I still devoured them, for all that, and reading the synopsis on Wikipedia brought back some memories.

Joe Hill tweeted that he was saddened by the news. At the risk of sounding callous, I wouldn't say "sad"--I think I thought John Christopher was already dead. What I am, though, is grateful for his work. I suppose it would have been better if it wasn't his death that reminded me of how much Youd's writing has stayed with me, but Mr. Youd had a good run (he was 89) and we all pass away, some of us sooner than later; it would have been better to have a happy reason for remembering his work, but things are what they are (sorry for the banality, but it is what it--argh!), and if this is the occasion upon which I get to send a thank-you out to the universe for Mr. Youd's work: thank you. Mr. Youd, you scared the crap out of me when I was a kid and I still cringe at the thought of electrodes being drilled into my scalp by a monstrous extraterrestrial device--I can only hope anything I ever write has a tenth of that kind of impact on anybody of any age. Thank you for the work, thank you for the stories.


timb111 Monday, February 6, 2012 at 10:04:00 PM EST  

I remember reading those while in Junior High much more than thirty years ago. I enjoyed them a lot. At the same time I started reading my father's Astonishing, Analog and Galaxy mags. Altogether a great introduction to SciFi

I don't remember the series that well, but I do remember a lot of slinking about between walls in the tripod's homes. And something about some young French girls being taken to live permanently with the tripods and thinking it an honour.

I never did figure out where it took place. I guessed (why I don't recall) that it took place around the Great Lakes and that the French Folk were from Quebec. Probably due to my ignorance of European geography.

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