As always, dear readers, welcome.
I have just finished John Christopher’s (one of a number of pen names for Samuel Youd, 1922-2012)
1960s tetrology about the tripods,
originally a trilogy, to which the author added a fourth volume as a “prequel”.
The tripods are the vehicles—and emblems—of an alien race , which at an earlier time, had invaded the earth. If you know H.G. Wells’ work, and, if you read this blog, that’s probably a sure bet, you’ll recognize where Christopher got the idea, both for the invasion and the tripods—
Europe, in the late 19th century, when Wells came up with his idea, was an increasingly large armed camp. Industrialization had promoted more and bigger armaments and larger populations had encouraged national conscription (except for Britain, which maintained only a small—especially in comparison–volunteer army).
With heightened awareness of the possibilities of imminent war somewhere, and perhaps soon, British fiction writers began to turn out books like William Le Queux’ (1864-1927)
1894 what-if novel, The Great War in England 1897,
(Here’s your copy: https://archive.org/details/greatwarinengla00queugoog/page/n8/mode/2up
in which French and Russian forces combine to invade Britain.
Invasions don’t have to come from the continent, however, and, in 1897, Wells (1866-1946), began
publishing a serial in Pearson’s Magazine entitled The War of the Worlds,
following that with the story in book form in 1898.
(If you’d like to see it in its original magazine form, here it is, beginning with this: Pearson’s Magazine, Vol.III, April, 1897, No.16
For the complete text, look here: https://archive.org/details/h-g-wells_the-war-of-the-worlds )
In Wells’ narrative, Earth is attacked by a series of cylinders, fired like giant bullets, from Mars, which oddly presages Georges Melies’ (1861-1938) 1902 comic silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune (The Trip to the Moon), in which a group of Earthmen are shot to the moon by a giant cannon.
(And you can see it here: https://archive.org/details/VoyageDansLaLune The Internet Archive has over 200 silent films and is a wonderful resource for enjoying an art form which precedes later film, but has its own life and isn’t simply black and white movies without sound.)
Inside the cylinders are the Martians, few in number, but equipped with weapons far beyond anything available on earth. And so Wells’ story is the very opposite of a comedy, the Martians being so advanced that, even with a few losses, they, with their superior technology, quickly devastate not only the area around London, but the people around London as well with a combination of what Wells’ calls a “heat ray” and this:
“Each of the Martians, standing in the great crescent I have described, had discharged, by means of the gunlike tube he carried, a huge canister over whatever hill, copse, cluster of houses, or other possible cover for guns, chanced to be in front of him. Some fired only one of these, some two—as in the case of the one we had seen; the one at Ripley is said to have discharged no fewer than five at that time. These canisters smashed on striking the ground—they did not explode—and incontinently disengaged an enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathes.” (The War of the Worlds, Book 1, Chapter XV)
which horribly prefigures this, which appeared only a few years later on the battlefields of the Great War—
The Martians were mostly represented by their “war machines”, huge metal monsters with three legs,
(There are many images of these things on-line, but this seems to me to come closest to Wells’ original description, although this, from the 2005 Tom Cruise film doesn’t seem so far off. )
but the anonymous main character manages to see some Martians outside their machines and here’s his description:
“They were, I now saw, the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive. They were huge round bodies—or, rather, heads—about four feet in diameter, each body having in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils—indeed, the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell, but it had a pair of very large dark-coloured eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak. In the back of this head or body—I scarcely know how to speak of it—was the single tight tympanic surface, since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our dense air. In a group round the mouth were sixteen slender, almost whiplike tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each. These bunches have since been named rather aptly, by that distinguished anatomist, Professor Howes, the hands. Even as I saw these Martians for the first time they seemed to be endeavouring to raise themselves on these hands, but of course, with the increased weight of terrestrial conditions, this was impossible. There is reason to suppose that on Mars they may have progressed upon them with some facility.
The internal anatomy, I may remark here, as dissection has since shown, was almost equally simple. The greater part of the structure was the brain, sending enormous nerves to the eyes, ear, and tactile tentacles. Besides this were the bulky lungs, into which the mouth opened, and the heart and its vessels. The pulmonary distress caused by the denser atmosphere and greater gravitational attraction was only too evident in the convulsive movements of the outer skin.
And this was the sum of the Martian organs. Strange as it may seem to a human being, all the complex apparatus of digestion, which makes up the bulk of our bodies, did not exist in the Martians. They were heads—merely heads. Entrails they had none. They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins. I have myself seen this being done, as I shall mention in its place. But, squeamish as I may seem, I cannot bring myself to describe what I could not endure even to continue watching. Let it suffice to say, blood obtained from a still living animal, in most cases from a human being, was run directly by means of a little pipette into the recipient canal. . . “(War, Book 2, Chapter II)
Probably the end of this story is familiar to you: although the Martians have advanced technology, they lack immune systems which will fight off terrestrial diseases and, just when it looks like they are about to march on the rest of the UK, they quickly succumb to infections.
Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to dramatize Wells’ story, from the famous Orson Welles (no relation, as far as I know) radio adaptation of 1938,
which caused a certain amount of panic among listeners in the US,
(You can read about it here:
and listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9q7tN7MhQ4I )
to the perhaps equally well-known George Pal film from 1953,
in which the story is moved to the early 1950s and southern California and the Martians’ war machines become sleek aircraft,
(for more, see a very interesting and thorough article here:
to the Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg movie of 2005, in which events take place in the present, on the east coast of the US.
(about which you can read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_the_Worlds_(2005_film) and for more adaptations of the Wells’ story, see: https://www.imdb.com/list/ls058900268/ )
Unlike those who have written scripts which follow, sometimes more, sometimes less, closely Wells’ text, Christopher takes a completely different approach. To begin, the aliens are not Martians, but come from a distant galaxy and successfully conquer the majority of Earth. Although their tripods have the destructive power of Wells’ war machines, they conquer in a completely different manner: through brainwashing. They take over television and use it to convince most Earthlings that they are not hostile invaders, but beneficent beings and Earth would be far better off with them in control. This we learn in the first book, or “prequel”, When the Tripods Came.
Once they had achieved their conquest, they erect three huge dome-cities across the northern hemispheres and maintain control by placing a kind of webbing, called “the cap” on the heads of all humans past puberty. This mesh is dug into the skull and transmits electronic waves which convey the orders of the aliens. In the subsequent books, which take place some time later, we follow Will, an English boy who, with his difficult cousin, Henry, escapes England ahead of capping and manages to reach what has become a center of resistance to the aliens in The White Mountains.
In the third volume, Will and another boy, to gain intelligence, penetrate one of the three dome cities of the aliens in The City of Gold and Lead,
and, in the fourth and final book, The Pool of Fire, Will and others finally defeat the aliens by breaking open the domes of all three cities, allowing Earth’s atmosphere in, which then poisons all of the aliens.
One might see this as fairly standard science fiction of a certain sort, all about a willful but intelligent boy who has to learn first how to survive and then to take action in a hostile world. It moves along at a good pace and there is a certain amount of friction and character development, but, for me, the most interesting parts are about the aliens, beginning with Christopher’s description of them:
“…They stood much taller than a man, nearly twice as tall, and were broad in proportion. Their bodies were wider at the bottom than at the top, four or five feet around I thought, but tapered upward to something like a foot in circumference at the head. If it was the head, for there was no break in the continuity, no sign of a neck. The next thing I noticed was that their bodies were supported not on two legs but three, these being thick but short. They had, matching them, three arms, or rather tentacles, issuing from a point about halfway up their bodies. And their eyes—I saw that there were three of those, too, set in a flattened triangle, one above and between the other two, and a foot or so below the crown. In color the creatures were green, though I saw that the shades differed, some being dark, the green tinged with brown, and others quite pallid. That, and the fact that their heights varied to some extent, appeared to be the only means of telling one from another… (The City of Gold and Lead, 125-126)
It’s no wonder, then, that the aliens use tripod vehicles—they are tripods themselves.
The dome city is, in fact, a kind of eco-dome, which replicates not only their home world’s atmosphere, but also its heat and heavy gravity. They use young human males as slaves and so wearing is life in such a different climate, even when wearing an oxygen mask, which is a necessity, that it seems that 6 months are the usual life expectancy. The humans are so conditioned, however, that, when they feel too worn out, they willingly betake themselves to “the Place of Happy Release” to be exterminated.
A striking fact about the aliens is that they seem almost solitary, perhaps because reproduction is by budding and therefore there is little need for the kind of socializing which goes on in human society. As well, they are aesthetes, seeking or making what they believe to be beautiful—including preserving what they consider fine specimens of young female humans in collections which echo rows on butterflies on pins. Altogether, I feel that Christopher has produced a distinct race, intelligent, capable, but ultimately alien in every sense.
The idea of the Martian invasion first caught my attention when I read it in comic book form in childhood,
and I’ve read and reread the novel more than once—and even once wrote a blog posting about it (One World, Two Wars, 19 February, 2020), but, reading it this time for this posting, I found a connection—perhaps only the suggestion of a connection—with Tolkien.
This appears in a footnote by JRRT in one of his letters. A couple, Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, had interviewed him for The Daily Telegraph Magazine in the later 1960s and though seemingly kind and well-meaning, had either misunderstood or simply recreated parts of the interview, a draft of which they then sent to JRRT. Tolkien then, very patiently, wrote to correct a number of points and, in the process, added:
“I was greatly taken by the book that was (I believe) the runner-up when The L.R.was given the Fantasy Award: [The] Death of Grass. (letter to Mr. and Mrs. Plimmer, 8 February, 1967, Letters, 377)
The Death of Grass is a 1956 science fiction novel by John Christopher.
If Tolkien knew and enjoyed that earlier novel by Christopher, perhaps he had read about tripods, too?
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Avoid hair nets,
And know that, as always, there’s
If you would like to know more about the tripods and their world, have a look at:
There is a very interesting 2013 pseudo-documentary about a Martian invasion called The Great Martian War, 1913-1917, in which the Great War of 1914-1918 is replaced with an alternative: the great powers of Europe and North America, instead of fighting each other during this period, are allied in a war against exterrestrial invaders. You can read about it here:
and see it here: https://archive.org/details/TheGreatMartianWar19131917.Mister.X It cleverly mixes real period film with altered or imitation film, giving it a surprisingly authentic look.