If you grow up as a bookish youngster, especially a geeky youngster, there are certain books you will run into, just as part of the background haze of being a geek. I had read the Tripods Trilogy probably back in elementary school, and thought well of them then. The other week, I was given an opportunity to read them again, and I found that my memories of them as being great science fiction weren't just the result of my easily impressed young mind. The core of the books is a simple enough science fiction plot: in a world overtaken by alien invaders, a group of rebels must fight to save humanity. So simple, that this book could easily go down into being a simplistic action story. But there are several different aspects of the trilogy, which is fairly impressive considering that altogether, they are only 600 pages long.
The many different aspects of the books that makes them such a well written piece of work are:
- Bildungsroman: The books are an obvious Bildungsroman, or coming of age story. Because the tripods put caps, or mind control devices, on all humans at the age of puberty, the only people who can join the resistance are those who flee before puberty. At first, the heroes of the story are young, and their flight from the tripods and towards freedom is a simple matter of youthful adventure. As they get older, they learn to cope with their almost-hopeless war against the Tripods by growing in maturity. The books actually subvert the Bildungsroman on two levels: socially, the goal of young boys (and they are all male, which is another issue entirely) is not to fit in to the society, but to escape it. It suggests that rebellion is the real path to maturity. It is easy enough to look at the capping ceremony as a stand-in for the real world of puberty, and the eventual introduction to adult male burdens and conformity that it represents. The books also subvert the Bildungsroman in that the protagonist has trouble maturing, with his flights of temper and impulsiveness causing problems throughout the book, and even at the conclusion he admits to not having mastered them.
- Post-Apocalypse: The books depict a world that is post-apocalyptic, although not conventionally so. After the aliens invaded the world, and destroyed most of its high technology, humanity is reduced to a medieval level of existence. However, most people are cared for and happy, and there are no major social problems or conflicts. This peace is brought at the expense of humanity's freedom, which leads to a philosophical problem about welfare versus freedom. The books present a book that is simultaneously a utopia and a dystopia.
- Xenobiology and Xenosociology: There are two major schools of Xenobiology, both in science and in science fiction. The first school believes that alien life will be much like terrestrial life, only with a few cosmetic differences. (Star Trek was the best popular example of this, with aliens mostly being distinguished by having different nose ridges). The second school states that alien life is probably stranger than we can imagine it. The Tripods trilogy, and their aliens, referred to as "Masters", seem to be in the middle ground. While they are organic-based life, their body plans have trilateral symmetry (the reason why they build tripod vehicles), and they breathe air that is poisonous to humans. Their sociology, while still being understandable to humans, is vastly different. They are inherently communitarian, and have no idea of how to lie or deceive each other. While the aliens could have just been portrayed as generic villains, some time and effort is taken to explain why they are the way they are.
- Adventure: In case the first three points are misleading, the books are not a ponderous treatise on societies and psychological development. The books are very tightly-plotted adventure stories, filled with narrow escapes, odd discoveries, and mysteries either explained or hinted at. Even though I knew what was coming, I felt myself eagerly and anxiously turning pages, feeling myself with the characters as they first entered the alien city and got their first glimpse of "The Masters".
So, to sum up: if you read these books long ago, reading them again will probably be a pleasant surprise. If you haven't read them, it might be a good item to put on your science-fiction reading list, especially given the ease and speed with which they can be read.