The Pool of Fire, by John Christopher (1968)

Pool of Fire cover
After the discussion of trilogies (and Martini-Corona’s eternal John Christopher obsession), I decided this project wouldn’t be complete without a Tripod book. The Tripod trilogy (…heh) might have been the first major YA science fiction trilogy, and is certainly a classic.

Pool of Fire cover
If you somehow missed these books, the premise is that aliens invade, in giant metal Tripod conveyances. They enslave all human adults with mind-control Caps and use people as slaves in their huge Cities. The small human rebellion depends on converting kids before they’ve been Capped. In the first book, Will, Henry, and Beanpole join the rebels; in the second, Will, Beanpole, and a new boy named Fritz infiltrate a Tripod City. Pool of Fire is the last book, the climax of the rebellion.

Pool of Fire cover
Apocalypse how? Aliens. Big, green, tentacle-y aliens who breathe green air. ‘Nuff said. The world is pretty rural, and there’s mention of human city ruins. I only re-read the last book so I don’t remember, but I think the implication is that the aliens blasted us back to the Middle Ages.

Pool of Fire cover
13 vs. 31: The world sure changed in the 10+ years between this book and most of the ones I’ve reviewed this month. Most immediately obvious to me is that there is not a single woman in this book. No named characters, certainly, but not even a shopkeeper or mother of a future revolutionary. (S theorized awesomely that the Tripods killed all the women, but the men were too depressed by this to deal with or even mention it. This interpretation does add a new dimension, you must admit!)

The casual racism and Eurocentrism is also excellent. The final assault on the three Tripod Cities needs to be done at the same time, by different rebel groups in different parts of the world. When they get word that one attack didn’t succeed, Will immediately jumps (incorrectly, as it happens) to, “The one in the east? The little yellow men failed then…” This is particularly interesting given the conclusion of the book, which has our heroes heading off to bring the world’s people together, now that they have the freedom to choose peace or war. I like to think Christopher meant this juxtaposition to be ironic. (I could say so much more about international relations in the Tripod books, but I want to post this sometime this month.)

Most fascinating to me was the portrayal of Julius, the rebel leader. At the beginning of the book, he’s challenged by another man, Pierre, who wants more democracy in their decision-making. Julius shuts him down:

“There will be a time… for us to discuss among ourselves how we shall be governed…. Until then, we have no room for squabbling or dispute…. Nor do we have room for dissension, or the suspicion of dissension.”

Ok. There’s an argument to be made for despotism in wartime. But it’s a tricky one at best, and in a modern novel, a statement like this would be challenged, by the text if not by the characters. The book would make the risks of this way of thinking a theme.

This book ends with a parallel Council meeting, in which the leaders of the new free world are, in fact, “discuss[ing] among [them]selves how [they] shall be governed.” They’re all set to elect Julius as President, when Pierre starts talking again. He says some stuff that makes a whole lot of sense to me:

“We are expected, out of sentiment, to vote him back into office. We are asked to confirm a despot in power…. There were others who worked and fought for freedom — hundreds, thousands of others. We accepted Julius as our leader then, but that is no reason for accepting him now…. Julius wanted the Conference held here, among the peaks of the White Mountains, as yet another means of reminding us of the debt we are supposed to owe him. Many delegates are from low-lying lands and find conditions here oppressive….”

In a modern book, Pierre might be the hero. In this book, our heroes Will, Beanpole, and Fritz are horrified when the Conference votes against Julius. We could be meant to take this as blind loyalty on Will’s part; his shortcomings are a theme throughout the trilogy. Except that the delegates don’t even suggest any other candidates. Without Julius to lead them, the Conference falls apart and the delegates return to their respective countries. The text comdemns Julius’s ouster just as Will does, which strikes me as distinctly old-fashioned, or British, or probably both.

Ultimately, this book held up. It’s a classic for a reason. I particularly loved how scientific and careful all the planning was — there are no plot holes here. But I couldn’t ignore the datedness. Old-School indeed.

Covers: There’s time for a lot of covers in 30+ years in print! Here’s a selection. None are especially crazy, unfortunately.

So that’s it, folks! I hope you enjoyed Old-School Apocalypse April as much as I did. I now return to my regularly-scheduled diet of YA and middle grade published in the last few years, and I think none of it will be science fiction for a little while. One final plea: it’s easy get stuck on the “I have to read all the new stuff!” treadmill, but take some time to revisit old favorites. It’s definitely never boring.

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4 Responses to The Pool of Fire, by John Christopher (1968)

  1. Patrick Kavanagh says:

    Love this genre of retro apocalyptic YA books. I discovered City of Gold and Lead in the early 80s through a subscription to Boys Life magazine. They were running a monthly comic serialization of this trilogy and I remember re-reading them many times. Looks like a lot of it is captured online here:

  2. Martini-Corona says:

    I remember being pissed about the girl character in _The White Mountains_, but it does explain where they are… I think the lack of girl characters never bothered me because on some level I just identify as a teenage boy. :D That said, I think the prequel to the series (which was written later) DOES have a girl character, though she might be a cute-younger-sister type.

    My favorite of the 3 books is the 2nd one, _The City of Gold and Lead_ — I find it the most chilling by far.

  3. Lance says:

    Oh how I loved these books as a child! I wondered whether I’d find them impossibly broken if I tried to read them now–even keeping in mind Deborah’s permission to love things that are broken(*), I feared that I’d find them just too boy-centric to enjoy. I might give them a shot again, but then again, rereading is a low priority these days.

    *I know I don’t need Deborah’s permission to love things. “Permission” used tongue-in-cheek.

  4. Serin says:

    There is a girl in I think the second book, but she’s not much of a character – Will falls for her, discovers she turned 16 (and was Capped) last year (she wears a head covering, as is the custom for girls who get capped and have to have their heads shaved), but then she’s crowned the Princess of Beauty or something like that at the local festival, which means… off she goes to the Tripods.

    So boys are chosen in olympic-type trials, so the aliens get the strongest to serve them personally. Girls are chosen for their beauty, and then gassed like butterflies and preserved forever (and arranged according to haricolor, no less) so they can be admired.

    Soo… yeah. Almost would have preferred no girls. It’s a doozy, and now I want to go back and reread them. I loved these books in 6th grade.

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