Fearful Associations in John Christopher’s Middle-Grade Science Fiction

By Jens LloydMay 9, 2016

The Lotus Caves by John Christopher
The Guardians by John Christopher

JOHN CHRISTOPHER’S Tripods trilogy (1967-’68) consumed a good chunk of my otherwise scattered attention span in middle school. I encountered the books as a preteen, 30 years after their original publication. I remember somewhat hazily the story of the trilogy, which is, essentially, an inspired follow-up to H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898). What I remember with far more clarity is the sense of camaraderie that I shared with friends, who, like me, begged their parents to buy them the books and then, with great enthusiasm, raced through them in hopes of keeping pace with each other.

The trilogy occupies a hallowed spot on my bookshelves, having survived various purges. My copy of The White Mountains (1967), the first in the series, has a curious gash in its cover, but otherwise the books — which also include The City of Gold and Lead (1968) and The Pool of Fire (1968) — remain in decent condition. I study the covers and reread the blurbs when I clean my shelves. For this reason, I am predisposed to recognize the name “Christopher” on the spine of small, slim trade paperbacks. That’s how The Guardians (1970) and The Lotus Caves (1969) ended up in my possession, the result of an hour spent combing through the offerings at a local library’s used book sale.

John Christopher, whose real name was Sam Youd, was a postwar British SF writer who wrote mostly for young people. In 2014, Aladdin Books republished much of Christopher’s middle-grade science fiction and fantasy. I think it’s great that, amid the seemingly ceaseless flood of new YA fiction, Christopher’s catalog continues to be available. I am happy, though, that, at the aforementioned used book sale, I was able to secure the original American paperback editions for both Guardians and Caves. The books will be added to my shelves, slotted in next to the Tripods. In a way, the stories, too, belong next to the Tripods. Published shortly after the trilogy, both Guardians and Caves find Christopher getting at the same concerns that drive his most famous work. How does a young boy (and in Christopher’s middle-grade fiction it is always a young boy) maintain a sense of self while associating with others? How does he navigate between the poles of assimilation and individuality?

The Guardians depicts a dystopian landscape that is, for contemporary readers, dotted with familiar conventions. It’s the year 2051 and Rob, our 13-year-old protagonist, lives in the vast tangle of the London Conurb, a teeming urban landscape where riots erupt with regularity, public services are in disarray, and everyone listens to bad music and eats crappy food. The urban tumult of the late 1960s is plainly reflected in this setting. But the Conurb has its mirror opposite: the County. In the world of The Guardians, the line between the haves and the have-nots is as well defined and insurmountable as the Barrier, the boundary separating Conurb and County.

Rob, a lover of adventure stories, is introduced in a dilapidated Conurb library, navigating what remains of the collection. Christopher wastes no time in throwing Rob into an adventure of his own. In the first chapter alone, Rob is nearly trampled in a riot, is orphaned when his father dies in an accident, goes to live briefly with family friends, and then is shipped off to a boarding school. While this sets an invigorating pace, what gets sacrificed, of course, is character development. Rob’s reaction to his father’s death is quickly glossed over as the novel presses onward. We follow Rob through a brief, frightening stay at the boarding school before he takes off on a daring escape, to the edges of the Conurb, across the no man’s land that is the Barrier, and into the verdant topography of the County.

Here, the novel settles down. It is as if the gentility of County life dictates a more methodical pace. Rob’s enculturation into this new way of life is where the novel gets particularly intriguing. What was a fast-moving tour of a dystopian future becomes an exploration of how one young man goes about deciding whether to acquiesce or revolt against a deceptively comfortable lifestyle. Shortly after crossing the Barrier, Rob encounters Mike, the child of a well-to-do County family, the Giffords. With unquestioning eagerness, Mike takes up Rob as his charge and lures him away to bunker in a wooded area. The chapter wherein the friendship between Rob and Mike is developed provides some much-needed attention to character. This relationship poses questions for Rob that end up sustaining the rest of the novel. Is Mike a “dependable” advocate? Given that Mike is the product of “a strange and alien land” and that “the whole cast of Mike’s mind [is] foreign to his,” should Rob fear Mike and strike out on his own?

Mike’s mother soon discovers Rob’s hideout, and the association with Mike proves immediately beneficial. Cold and taciturn, Mrs. Gifford makes surprising decisions that belie her unfriendly exterior. For instance, instead of sending Rob back to the Conurb, she agrees to take him in. Mrs. Gifford advises Rob “[to] settle down and get used to things. We all have to adjust.” Rob, pretending to be a distant cousin of the Giffords, attends school with Mike and appears with him at social gatherings. Christopher uses these moments to play up Rob’s attempts to assimilate into this unfamiliar society. Especially intriguing are moments that contrast with Rob’s life in the Conurb. In the Gifford home, he encounters “a room about fifteen feet by twenty-five feet, its walls almost completely lined with glass-fronted cases […] full of books.” This library is nothing like the dilapidated one in the Conurb, but it’s just as useless. Rob realizes that all the books “had one thing in common: none had been published within the last thirty or forty years.” When asked about this, Mike explains, “I should think enough have been published already.”

But Mike is not a total boob. In fact, as Rob gets more comfortable with County life, Mike becomes more dissatisfied. It is Mike, not Rob, who begins to question the status quo of the County. It is Mike, not Rob, who begins to wonder why the Barrier must be maintained. And it is Mike, not Rob, who ends up leading them to a meeting of proto-revolutionaries. As the final quarter of the novel unfolds, Rob plays spectator to an attempted revolution. But he is not the one leading the revolt — he is no Mockingjay. He doesn’t even participate in it. It all takes place off-stage, as it were. We are offered no firsthand account of the revolutionary action, which, though quelled by County forces, is not entirely extinguished. The seeds of revolution linger in Mike, who escapes to the Conurb. Rob is left with the same questions he faced earlier: should he fear associating with Mike or not?

What is clear by novel’s end is that the denizens of both County and Conurb lack self-determination. The County is bogged down in order and apathy, while the Conurb is beset by chaos and hostility. The binary maintained by the Barrier is so absolute that it turns out to be false. As Mike puts it, comparing the County to the Conurb, the choice is either “idleness or mass stupidity.” In the final pages, with Mike having escaped to the Conurb, Rob faces the choice of associating with the monotonous certainty of the County or the dangerous uncertainty of the Conurb. The novel concludes with his decision — and while readers will be confident that Rob is making the right one, the prospects for his future are decidedly unclear.

The Lotus Caves is a more compelling adventure book than Guardians. Set on the Moon 70 years after mankind established a lunar colony, the story has a fanciful element that outshines the earthbound politics of Guardians. The year is 2068 and Marty is a 14-year-old kid born into the unexciting life of the Bubble, the lunar colony that acts as both suburb and research facility. Boredom is the greatest threat to the Bubble’s inhabitants. The adults seem resigned to this tedium, while the young people, like Marty, are eager to find ways to break from the routine.

More intriguing is (forgive the pun) the lunacy that lurks just below the surface of Bubble life. “People,” we are told, “were picked for mental stability but occasionally it broke down.” Marty recalls the story of a colonist who went outside and attempted “to shatter the Bubble with a crowbar and then, with a dozen watching him from the other side of the barrier, [took] off his helmet and choked in vacuum.”

Marty’s eagerness to escape the boredom of the Bubble leads him to strike up a friendship with Steve, an unwittingly rebellious loner whose parents died in a mishap. When Marty and Steve get in trouble for a prank, Marty is irked that Steve is seen as the instigator. This dynamic between the boys draws out a defiant streak in Marty’s character that makes him more interesting than The Guardians’s protagonist. Marty convinces Steve to go on an excursion outside the Bubble. The boys find themselves in a rover that can bypass a mechanical restriction that typically keeps rovers confined to a limited radius relative to the Bubble. Marty is the one who, despite some internal misgivings, convinces Steve to go on an adventure.

While piloting the rover, Marty looks up and sees the “luminous crescent” of Earth. He realizes that, instead of the usual protection of the Bubble, he has only “the observation panel of this tiny, lurching machine” to protect him. Marty and Steve spend a lot of time in the rover, not all of it particularly exciting. Eventually, they come upon First Station, the original colony that failed under dubious circumstances. Again tapping into his defiant streak, Marty suggests they go exploring. The lunacy of Caves reappears in the figure of Thurgood. Both boys know the story of this early colonist whose “mind had been turned by the stress of living on the Moon” and who had taken off in a rover and never returned. Marty finds a notebook while exploring First Station. It is, as the boys soon discover, Thurgood’s notebook. In one entry, Thurgood writes about encountering a giant flower on the Moon. Marty is quick to judge: “He must have been mad.” Steve responds, “He doesn’t sound mad. Everything’s very matter-of-fact apart from the flower bit.” Steve wants to track down this lunar flower and persuades a reluctant Marty to accompany him. At this point, his defiance waning, Marty begins to fear his association with Steve. But that is overshadowed when their rover slips from a precipice and goes tumbling into the Moon.

Yes, into the Moon. The second half of the novel is set in the titular caves, a sprawling realm of wild colors and even wilder objects. For instance, the boys encounter a “greenish-purple” grass that undulates and produces orbs that break away to levitate and spin. One orb transforms into “what looked like a pair of wings with no connecting body” and flies around before being reabsorbed into the grass. Assuredly, Marty and Steve are — this being the 1960s, after all — on some sort of trip. Marty interprets the psychedelic vibe as “gibberish.” But Steve has a more radical idea: “Do you think we could be living inside someone’s book?” Clearly, Christopher intends his descriptions of the caves to be as mind-altering for his readers as they are for his characters. (Unfortunately, the cover of the 2014 edition fails to capture the psychedelic glory of Caves. It makes the caves look much too much like an earthbound jungle. The 1969 cover conveys the weirdness, with the spindly figures of Marty and Steve exploring a landscape populated with vines and plants that are alien in both color and shape.)

Marty and Steve meet Thurgood, the early colonist who went out in search of his flower and, apparently, found it. Thurgood explains that the caves comprise a self-perpetuating habitat that is — bear with me here — maintained by a giant alien plant that crashed into the Moon eons ago and took up residence in a series of interconnected lunar cavities. Reflecting, perhaps, the budding ecological sensibilities of the 1960s, Christopher uses his far-out setting to critique humankind. Thurgood explains:

Men are always thinking in terms of doing things — building bridges and machines, exploring the universe. The Plant is sufficient in itself. It doesn’t need to make anything or go anywhere.

Likewise, Thurgood leads a simple existence. He doesn’t really remember his past. And he doesn’t seem to care for anything except The Plant, which, in true psychedelic spirit, communicates with him telepathically.

Though life is good in the caves, Marty is uneasy about the set-up, especially the effects of Thurgood’s association with The Plant. Marty’s defiant streak reappears. Steve is eager to embrace the numbing effects, but Marty reminds Steve of the lotus-eaters from the Odyssey. “They ate this fruit that made them happy and made them forget where they were or where they had come from,” Marty explains. When Steve is unmoved, Marty emphasizes the existential threat: “Bit by bit we’ll stop being individuals, stop having minds and wills of our own.”

With this line, Marty gives voice to the central theme of both Caves and Guardians: the fear of assimilation, of losing all sense of individuality. For readers of Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, the theme is not unfamiliar. In that series, the fearful associations manifest via the “capping,” a lobotomy of sorts that transforms people into docile subordinates of the Tripods. Similar violations appear in The Guardians, as it is revealed that male inhabitants of the County are lobotomized to induce passivity. In Caves, assimilation is not achieved swiftly via a medical procedure. It is, rather, achieved slowly and steadily by an ostensibly benevolent interstellar vegetable.

With regard to this struggle between assimilation and individuality, Guardians may be more immediately relevant and politically interesting. For contemporary readers, its bifurcated landscape reflects our era of increasing economic disparity, where associations aren’t always a matter of choice. But Rob does have a choice, and how he chooses to resolve his struggle, while predictable, is not necessarily unsatisfying. Caves offers an ambivalent ending that I find more compelling. Marty and Steve escape the caves, leaving Thurgood behind. But, as they head back to the Bubble, Marty reflects on his choice. We are told that The Plant “tried to assimilate” Marty and Steve, “but only because it could not do otherwise.” The Plant is not malevolent. It is, rather, an extraterrestrial force that challenges human understanding. Marty is “glad to be free,” but, as he considers Thurgood’s coexistence with The Plant, he feels “a glimmer of something.” What is it? “Only a hint of a feeling,” we are told, “but he wondered if it could be envy.”

The novel, fittingly, ends in doubt. It ends with the sneaking suspicion on the part of the protagonist that he’s made the wrong choice. When should individualism be feared? When should assimilation be welcomed? If assimilation entails cohabitation with a benevolent interstellar vegetable, then I am, at least, going to consider my options.


Jens Lloyd is a PhD candidate in the English department at UC Irvine. His research focuses on the geographies and ecologies of rhetoric, writing, and literacy.

LARB Contributor

Jens Lloyd is a PhD candidate in the English department at UC Irvine. His research focuses on the geographies and ecologies of rhetoric, writing, and literacy.


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