Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: The White Mountains

You know what makes me feel old?  Trying to explain to my students what life was like before we had the Internet.  I was thinking about that as I read The White Mountains, because the aliens in it don't possess the kind of technology we would expect from a master race these days.  But the book was written in the 1960s, so can you blame them?

I've been trying to beef up the science fiction section in my library, which has led me to reread some books I think of as children's sci-fi classics, and it's very interesting to see how they hold up.  The White Mountains doesn't hold up all that well, but it does have its thrilling moments.  I basically really like the first few chapters and the second-to-last one.

The first few chapters outline a society in which tripods--giant, metal "hemispheres" with three long legs--control humans by "capping" them before they are adults.  The metal caps fuse to people's heads and seem to keep them docile and peaceful.  The world around them has returned to a feudal society, complete with lords and ladies and cathedrals and vassals.


::Meet Will (He's kind of a Jerk)

The story follows a boy named Will who sneaks away from his village shortly before it's his turn to be capped.  He's heard that there is a group of free, uncapped people living in a faraway mountain range, and he's determined to find them.  Unfortunately, the town bully sneaks out along with him.

You might think that this leads to a few funny scenes or at least some touching ones, as the boys get over their differences, but Will just gets more resentful and unlikeable as the story goes on.  I imagine some readers appreciate the naturalism of having boys who dislike each other travel together and vie for leadership, but I kept hoping they would develop more as characters.

The boys' adventure/survival story starts out strong with a sea voyage, a kidnapping, and an escape.  However, things slow down as the boys travel through what most readers will recognize as post-apocalyptic France.  The author spends a lot of time describing the ruins of Paris, from the subways to the Notre Dame.  But of course, he doesn't use the words "subway" and "Notre Dame," so I'm not sure my students would understand what he was referring to.  Sometimes I didn't understand what he was referring to.  Can someone tell me what this is supposed to be:
"Other things we could not understand--a rack full of wooden things ending in iron cylinders, for instance.  They had small half-hoops of iron on one side with a little iron finger inside."
I'm thinking a gun, but I'm not sure.

::Is this the future or the past?

After an interlude in a castle where Will's commitment to being free is tested, the three boys set out on the last leg of their journey.  And this is where changes in technology render the book weirdly unbelievable at the same time as the action picks up again.

The tripods start actively stalking the boys, but they do it by sight!  They have giant search lights and they tramp back and forth through the woods sweeping the area.  All the boys have to do is stay out of the light--no worries about the tripods detecting movement, heat, etc.  It's also not clear that the tripods have any way of communicating with each other besides a siren-like call.  The author actually addresses this in the foreword, explaining that infrared technology had not been invented when he wrote the books.  But that doesn't change the strange experience of reading the book now.

I can certainly understand why readers still give this book rave reviews: the boys' relationships are authentic, the tripods are seriously menacing, and the story covers a lot of territory in under 200 pages.

However, there are also a number of reasons why I'd be unlikely to recommend this book to my students: the long passages about the ruins of Paris, the old fashioned technology, the way the castle scene reminds me of something out of Pilgrim's Progress, the abrupt conclusion.  While I appreciate the historical significance of this book, I find it remarkably backward-looking for a sci-fi story.

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