Tuesday 4 October 2022

The Question in Bodies #49: When the Aliens Won

I guess recent news in the UK reminded me of this.

In John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, beginning in 1967 with The White Mountains and serialised incompletely by the BBC in 1984 and 1985, the earth has been enslaved by an alien race who pilot three-legged war machines; it’s similar if not exactly the same as “what if War of the Worlds, only the Martians won?”

Everyone lives in a sort of feudal society, where technology is at a late mediaeval level and nothing seems to advance. At the age of 16, in what has become a coming-of-age ceremony, teenagers are taken up into one of the Tripods and “capped”: the aliens fuse a lattice of shining metal circuitry to each person’s skull, which controls their minds in a very specific way. They still love, hate, make friends, have kids, laugh, cry, experience grief and joy. But they no longer ask questions. They do not innovate. They no longer have the capacity to imagine a world that is not controlled by the unseeable Masters who hide in the shining machines that stride over the world like gods. They accept their authority and trust that it is for the best. The protagonist, a boy named Will, is disturbed by the distance he now perceives in his older brother, who has just been capped. Encouraged by an old vagrant who calls himself Ozymandias (and who is secretly a recruiter for the resistance), Will and his cousin Henry go on the run, beginning a fraught journey across Europe to a place of sanctuary. In the second and third books of the series, The City of Gold and Lead (1967) and The Pool of Fire (1968), Will becomes part of a desperate plan to penetrate deep into the heart of the Masters’ city, and to learn how to drive them from the planet.

So far, so Young Adult, but the part that stayed with me when I read The White Mountains as a kid was the early chapter where Will and Henry are taken in by a French family. They are kind and generous, but Will knows they cannot be trusted. Still, he falls in love with the youngest daughter, Eloise, and begins to conceive of a plan to tell her where he is really going and to get her to come with him. But, on the day he finally gathers the courage to do this, while larking around, he knocks off her headscarf, and sees, because her hair hasn’t grown back yet, that she has been capped. She’s been brainwashed all along.

These experiences of Will’s are exactly what it is like to be neurologically different. The thing that makes the Tripods trilogy really relevant in a study of identity horror is to recast what it feels like to be different, to feel like you’re the only person on earth with compassion or regard for people, who sees the harm in the structures our society unthinkingly perpetuates. Only, no one knows or believes that you’re different. No one sees it. No one sees the harm or how people are being crushed. No one sees that their masters want to enslave your strongest kids and kill the pretty ones and keep them in display cases like butterflies. It’s a thing they cannot conceive. It’s not invisible, it’s unseeable, so that even if it is shown to them, the conditioning they have received makes them incapable of seeing the harm, the murder, the evil of it.

And you meet progressive people, nice people, good people even, who you talk to and even start counting as friends, and then something happens, and something is said, or nearly said, and then the scarf falls off and suddenly you realise that they’re never going to be able to see and in a choice between you and the forces that control the world, they’re going to sell you out to the Outer Gods at the first opportunity.

I sound like a conspiracist, I know. I admit, many of the experiences are the same. But the only conspiracies that really exist conduct the mundane, inhuman reality of capital, where everything is a blank binary between profit and loss. The conspiracy theorists, the poisonous ones, always have someone to blame (usually “Rothschilds” to be honest) but in truth, we know that there is no one, just the structures we have built ever since the first coins were struck, a mindless conceptual creature that will eat us all, and then itself.