REVIEW: When the Tripods Came (1988)

A book by John Christopher (Book 4 in the Tripods Series, a Prequel)

In the forward to When the Tripods Came, Sam Youd (a.k.a John Christopher) talks about a particular instance of listening to a panel show wherein they criticized The Tripods as a whole due to the idea that the world’s military might would have easily have crushed such an invasion force as portrayed in the TV series. This sentiment makes sense considering how easily the characters of Will, Beanpole, and Henry were able to destroy one of the hulking machines with a simple hand-grenade. Youd thought hard about this and revisited his world in the late 80’s to answer that very question – what did the “Masters” invasion look like? How did the Earth’s society collapse so easily? Youd thankfully came up with an interesting way to explain this, and it’s not at all what I expected.

” Experience the beginning of the Tripods’ reign in this prequel to the classic alien trilogy ideal for fans of Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave and Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Shadow Children series. When it comes to alien invasions, bad things come in threes. Three landings: one in England, one in Russia, and one in the United States. Three long legs, crushing everything in their paths, with three metallic arms, snacking out to embrace—and then discard—their helpless victims. Three evil beings, called Tripods, which will change life on Earth forever.”

We are introduced to new protagonists for the series which is understandable as this book takes place some years before the other three. Unlike the television series, we don’t actually know any specific dates for when this book occurs or the later series, but I’d imagine it’s contemporary for the 1980s. The novel’s chief protagonist is a thirteen-year-old English boy named Laurie Corday. He does not get along with his family after an unspecified childhood trauma caused by his mother leaving them. He lives with his Grandmother Martha, his father Martin, his half-sister Angela, and his step-mother Ilse (who is on a business trip in Switzerland for a lot of this.) They eventually get a tag-along in one of Laurie’s school friends named Andy, who’s mother disappears during the story.

Laurie is not too dissimilar to Will from the original books, as he is very independent and has a general distrust of authority due to having little respect for his own parents. He thinks his father allows others to walk all over him, and doesn’t like Ilse because she is his mother’s replacement in his eyes. He also resents his younger sister, who is only seven years old in the story, as he feels she is everyone’s favorite and gets away with everything. Despite being such a troubled young man, Laurie is fairly heroic, eventually acting on his own to save his friend and spearheading the earliest forms of Tripod resistance. When the story ends, Laurie has actually grown and adjusted quite well due to his ordeal, and in a weird way is more well adjusted and appreciative of his life and family. It’s an interesting character arc for sure.

The initial Tripod invasion is incredibly uneventful, a handful of them show up in remote areas of the world, only to be utterly decimated by military personnel. They become quite the laughing stock, even being lampooned on a new television show called “The Trippy Show“. Little does everyone know, “The Trippy Show” is actually the real invasion of Earth, as it somehow has the ability to hypnotize anyone that watches it into falling head over heels with the idea of worshipping The Tripods, wearing a new thing called a “cap”, and eventually going off to live in “Trippy” communes. When everyone wises up to the fact that fans of the show have become violent recluses that obsess over The Tripods it’s far too late.

We see an “us vs them” dynamic form with “Trippies” fighting against people that have ignored the threat. Without excerpting any real effort, The Tripods did not need an arsenal of huge weapons to rule The Earth, they harnessed human paranoia and willingness to be subjugated to passively take over. The brainwashing hits close to home when Laurie’s own sister almost runs away to a commune, which is the very place his friend Andy’s mother was likely killed. The military tries to restore order, but are easily overwhelmed, and towns start “capping” anyone over the age of 14. We see law enforcement become the prototype version of what would later become the “Blackguards”, and the beginnings of the xenophobia that would keep communities stuck in a permanent state of medieval feudalism for generations to come.

You might be asking exactly how so many people willingly gave up their lives to serve their new Tripod overlords. As with the original trilogy, we find out that the caps soothe and placate mankind. We are told that in some cases it can cure ailments, for example one person is suffering from rheumatism and the cap alleviates it entirely. Another person is suffering from depression, and the cap turns her into a relatively happy person. When all obstacles and stress are taken out of one’s life, it’s easy for someone to allow an abuse of power and removal of liberties. In many ways people welcome The Tripods because it was the first time they had been happy in a long time.

Parts of this book reminded me a LOT of another John Christopher book, The Death of Grass. It doesn’t last long, but the series of events that take the family from England to Guernsey then to Switzerland were very reminiscent of that other book. Granted, the events in are extremely upsetting and we don’t really have anything on par with that here. However, we do see a family on a trek to what they hope is safety in Switzerland watching society collapse around them and people succumb to animalistic urges and quickly regress back away from civility. There is even a section that describes how the family survives post invasion, by breaking into people’s houses and taking supplies as needed, possibly threatening people to stay alive, and recruiting to increase group size. It’s just an interesting observation that I had and I’m glad I read the previous book to make it.

Overall, I was entertained by When the Tripods Came by John Christopher. It wasn’t what I expected, and doesn’t completely answer everything you would expect, and somewhat causes more questions to pop up. Like, how did The Tripods create “The Trippy Show”? Did they just brainwash a TV executive and get the ball rolling, or was it beamed from space? It’s a minor quibble, but the idea was amazing until I started to pick it apart a bit in my head. I did like how the book explains why The Masters never ventured too far into the mountains, and why the resistance group was able to stay safe for so long. Laurie and his family become the first wave of the very same group that Henry, Will, and Beanpole eventually join. I do wish this story was extended to more than one book, as the story would have been more fleshed out if readers were able to see some of the early resistance, and perhaps show segments of the fighting “The Masters” talk about when Will is trying to figure out what is happening in book two. I will give credit to Christopher for thinking outside of the box and avoiding the typical military story cliché I was expecting.

To read my reviews for the other books and the TV show, Click HERE

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