Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The Tripods and Morality

Twenty-five years of living makes a big difference in perspective. I ran across John Christopher's Tripods trilogy in November and remembered it from my youth as good adventure fiction with interesting themes of freedom, mind control, and civilization. But reading it was far more troubling with respect to morality than I had expected.

I was about 13 or 14 when I first picked up The City of Gold and Lead (book 2 in the trilogy) at my school library. A few years later Boys' Life magazine ran a serial comic book version of book 1: The White Mountains, which I followed with my family. By the time I left home at 19, I and others in my family had read the entire trilogy.

Spoilers below.

The Trilogy (since supplemented by a prequel) follows three boys in the future who are arriving at the age (around 13) to be Capped with a permanent mind control device that will secure their loyalty to the Tripods who conquered Earth 100 years previous. Ozymandias, an itinerant uncapped adult masquerading as a madman, recruits Will Parker to journey from England to the White Mountains in Switzerland and join a band of free, uncapped people. On his way he picks up his cousin Jack and a slight, brainy french boy named Jean Paul, or Beanpole. They journey to the White Mountains in book 1, sally forth to enter a city of the Tripods undercover in book 2, and conquer the Tripods in book 3. The subsquently written prequel narrates how the Tripods conquered a late Information age world (1988) with their advanced knowledge of mind.

I picked up the trilogy and the prequel at Amazon as a somewhat selfish Christmas gift for my children. They weren't interested, so I stole time over Christmas vacation as available to read the prequel, which was new to me, and the rest of the trilogy. I wrote the following on January 2, the first day back from vacation.

I read The White Mountains and its prequel, When the Tripods Came, last week with my new perspective. And early this morning I awoke and started The City of Gold and Lead. Early in the book I came across an incident and a sentence that crystallized a gnawing objection that had been building in me, and I don't believe I will finish the book or read its successor. The sentence was something like this: "Getting to the City of the Tripods was more important than the lonely old man on his island." That sentence crystallized for me the bad morality upon which the series is built. The boys stole the [uncapped] man's boat and continued on their journey. And I have to ask, "For what?" For what good are we fighting if our good is darkness? Throughout the book I was aware that the unCapped made their living by raids on the Capped, with occasional homicides ("collateral damage" is our euphemistic term, I think), and I wondered what gave them any moral authority at all over the Capped and the Tripods. Oh, well. Such is the difference, I hope, between good literature and great, between John Christopher and Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy.
I feel bad about my casual criticism of John Christopher, and I would gladly write as influentially as he did.

Since I put the series down I have given some additional thought to the nature of good and evil. "What," I have asked myself, "made the uncapped the good guys?" Other than the kinship we feel with them and the horror over the invasion of the Tripods and their control over Capped human minds, what essential moral quality makes the boys and their fellow "free men" more good than the Capped and the Tripods they serve.
Christopher places clues in the book to help us see the Tripods as morally worse than the "free men". He has the Tripods hunting humans for sport, terrorizing humans for fun, and trampling humans like ants remorselessly. Against this backdrop he has the "free men" resorting to deception, theft, and murder to fight the Tripods and the Capped who serve them.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.A., it was common to hear said, "If we become like them, they have won." And I wonder, if the good guys lie, thieve, and murder, what makes them good guys? Aren't good guys the people who follow the teachings of Jesus and Bhudda, of Ramakrishna and Francis of Assisi, of Covey and Tolstoy and Ghandi? Aren't they the ones who change the world by changing themselves?

What made me finally put down the books permanently was the incident of the old man on the island. The boys, on their journey to compete in games for entry to a City of the Tripods as slaves, are rescued from drowning by a hermit on a river island who, to their amazement, has "never bothered" to be capped. He puts the boys to work to earn their keep, and they soon realize he is in no hurry to have them off his island. As they escape in his boat, he splashes after them in anger, then despair, and their final thought, narrated by Will Parker, is, "Getting to the City of the Tripods was more important than the lonely old man on his island."

Here on the island the boys found a fellow free man who saved their lives and offered them kindness, but hindered their schedule. What did they do? Rob him. Isn't that precisely what sort of behavior is necessary for evil to triumph in the world? Doesn't goodness require making the rights of the one a sacred boundary to the goals of the many?

In the Tripods series, the boys eventually participate in the conquest of the Tripods. But I could tell on that early morning of January 2 it was bound to be no meaningful victory. Goodness wouldn't be advanced. And the souls of the boys wouldn't be enlightened.

Oh how my soul would have stirred if the more difficult question had been tackled in the series: how to win morally. Now that would have been a good puzzle and a good read!

1 comment:

Thomas Gail Haws said...
This comment has been removed by the author.