Monday, April 03, 2023

SF Luminaries: John Christopher

The Tripods (1984-85)

"John Christopher" - aka Christopher Youd, Samuel Youd (his real name), Hilary Ford, William Godfrey, Peter Graaf, Peter Nichols, William Vine, and Stanley Winchester - is perhaps best remembered for his YA SF series The Tripods, dramatised - rather poorly - by the BBC a couple of decades after the trilogy first appeared.

John Christopher: The Tripods Tetralogy (1967-88)

Concentrating solely on his 'second life' as a YA author would be to sell him short, though. His earlier adult novels have often been characterised - mostly by people who haven't read them - as imitations of fellow Brit John Wyndham's crossover megahit The Day of the Triffids (1951).

John Christopher: The Death of Grass (1956)

This may hold some truth for one or two of them - The World in Winter (1962), for instance - but even the Wyndham-influenced Death of Grass (1956) occupies a distinctly fiercer and more troubled space in the post-apocalyptic landscape than the older writer's "cosy catastrophes" (in Brian Aldiss's phrase). It's this brutal and uncompromising flavour which makes his work particularly relevant to readers today.

As you'll see from the bibliography here, Youd began writing novels under his own name, then under a succession of other pseudonyms, each tailored to one of his many interests. It was as "John Christopher" that he achieved his greatest commercial (and probably artistic) success, however:
I read somewhere ... that I have been cited as the greatest serial killer in fictional history, having destroyed civilisation in so many different ways – through famine, freezing, earthquakes, feral youth combined with religious fanaticism, and progeria.
- quoted on his Goodreads author page

John Christopher: The Caves of Night (1958)

These early novels were all thrillers of one type or another, but not all of them can be classified as Sci-fi. The Caves of Night is about a group of amateur speleologists lost in an unknown cave system, and The Long Voyage (which I've discussed in more detail here) describes the strange odyssey of a ship that drifts through the North Sea to the ice-packs of Greenland.

John Christopher: The Guardians (1970)

The first of his novels I myself read was The Guardians. I got it for my birthday one year, and it made an indelible impression on me. There was a sharpness and precision to the writing which I hadn't really encountered before. He didn't seem to pull any punches for his "juvenile" audience. In fact it's clear in retrospect that he found these shorter narrative units particularly suited to his talents.

John Christopher: The Prince in Waiting trilogy (1970-72)

Perhaps the high point of his talent is the brilliantly original - and terrifying - "Prince in Waiting" books. The protagonist Luke was, I think, my very first antihero. Camus's Meursault, Greene's whisky priest, Joyce's Leopold Bloom, none of them surprised me as much as the bitter, scheming, unrepentant hero of these three vividly imagined novels.

After that the temperature of his writing began to cool off a little. Had he gone too far for Puffin Books? Certainly the successors to The Prince in Waiting were mostly one-offs, and the "Fireball" trilogy, when it finally arrived, was a bit of a disappointment.

But then I don't think it really matters where you start with John Christopher. The "adult" novels are not really significantly more demanding - or terrifying - than the children's ones. My favourite of them all remains The Long Voyage - it's the one I keep on coming back to - but I suppose his most dazzling achievement would have to be The Prince in Waiting and its sequels.

Whichever of them you choose to read, though, you certainly won't be wasting your time. He's long outlasted the era he wrote in, and only a few of his books are still in print. They're worth snapping up when you see them, though. I still have a couple of them I'm looking for, but fewer and fewer bookshops now maintain those tatty shelves of SF paperback which used to be such a happy hunting ground for fans like me.

John Christopher: The Fireball trilogy (1981-86)

Sam Youd (1929-2018)

Sam Youd ['John Christopher']

John Christopher: The Year of the Comet (1955)


  1. The Year of the Comet [US: Planet in Peril (1959)] (1955)
    • The Year of the Comet. 1955. London: Sphere Books, 1978.
  2. The Death of Grass [US: No Blade of Grass (1957)] (1956)
    • The Death of Grass. 1956. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.
  3. The Caves of Night (1958)
    • The Caves of Night. 1958. London: Panther, 1962.
  4. A Scent of White Poppies (1959)
  5. The Long Voyage [US: The White Voyage] (1960)
    • The Long Voyage. 1960. London: Sphere books, 1986.
  6. The World in Winter [US: The Long Winter] (1962)
    • The World in Winter. 1962. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.
  7. Cloud on Silver [US: Sweeney's Island] (1964)
    • Cloud on Silver. 1964. Hodder Paperbacks. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966.
  8. The Possessors (1964)
    • The Possessors. 1964. London: Sphere books, 1978.
  9. A Wrinkle in the Skin [US: The Ragged Edge] (1965)
    • A Wrinkle in the Skin. 1965. London: Sphere books, 1978.
  10. The Little People (1966)
  11. Pendulum (1968)
    • Pendulum. 1968. Hodder Paperbacks. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969.
  12. Bad Dream (2003)

  13. Short Stories:

  14. The Twenty-Second Century (1954)

  15. YA Fiction:

  16. The Tripods trilogy:
    1. The White Mountains. 1967. Rev. ed. (2003)
    2. The City of Gold and Lead (1967)
    3. The Pool of Fire (1968)
    • The Tripods Trilogy: The White Mountains; The City of Gold and Lead; The Pool of Fire. 1967 & 1968. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
  17. The Lotus Caves (1969)
    • The Lotus Caves. 1969. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
  18. The Guardians (1970)
    • The Guardians. 1970. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  19. The Sword of the Spirits trilogy
    1. The Prince In Waiting (1970)
    2. Beyond the Burning Lands (1971)
    3. The Sword of the Spirits (1972)
    • The Prince in Waiting Trilogy: The Prince In Waiting; Beyond the Burning Lands; The Sword of the Spirits. 1970, 1971 & 1972. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.
  20. In the Beginning. Structural Readers (1972)
  21. Dom and Va (1973)
    • Dom and Va. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973.
  22. Wild Jack (1974)
    • Wild Jack. 1974. A Beaver Book. London: Hamish Hamilton Children’s Books, 1978.
  23. Empty World (1977)
    • Empty World. 1977. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.
  24. The Fireball trilogy
    1. Fireball (1981)
      • Fireball. Fireball Trilogy, 1. 1981. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
    2. New Found Land (1983)
      • New Found Land. Fireball Trilogy, 2. 1983. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.
    3. Dragon Dance (1986)
      • Dragon Dance. Fireball Trilogy, 3. 1986. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
  25. When the Tripods Came (1988)
    • When the Tripods Came. 1988. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
  26. A Dusk of Demons (1993)
    • A Dusk of Demons. 1993. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994.

  27. John Christopher: A Dusk of Demons (1993)

    as Christopher Youd:

  28. The Winter Swan (1949)

  29. as Samuel Youd:

  30. Babel Itself (1951)
  31. Brave Conquerors (1952)
  32. Crown and Anchor (1953)
  33. A Palace of Strangers (1954)
  34. Holly Ash [US: The Opportunist] (1955)
  35. Giant's Arrow [UK: as Anthony Rye] ((1956)
  36. The Burning Bird [US: The Choice (1961)
  37. Messages of Love (1961)
  38. The Summers at Accorn (1963)

  39. as William Godfrey:

  40. Malleson at Melbourne (1956)
  41. The Friendly Game (1957)

  42. as William Vine:

  43. "Death Sentence". Imagination Science Fiction (June 1953)
  44. "Explosion Delayed". Space Science Fiction (July 1953)

  45. as Peter Graaf:

  46. The Joe Dust Series:
    1. Dust and the Curious Boy [US: Give the Devil His Due] (1957)
    2. Daughter Fair (1958)
    3. The Sapphire Conference (1959)
  47. The Gull's Kiss (1962)

  48. as Hilary Ford:

  49. Felix Walking (1958)
  50. Felix Running (1959)
  51. Bella on the Roof (1965)
  52. A Figure in Grey (1973)
  53. Sarnia (1974)
  54. Castle Malindine (1975)
  55. A Bride for Bedivere (1976)

  56. as Peter Nichols:

  57. Patchwork of Death (1965)

  58. as Stanley Winchester:

  59. The Practice (1968)
  60. Men With Knives [US: A Man With a Knife] (1968)
  61. The Helpers (1970)
  62. Ten Per Cent of Your Life (1973)

John Christopher: Bad Dream (2003)


Stuart Hoar said...

A writer I've not heard of before but will certainly check him out. Thanks Jack!

SYLE Press said...

Appreciate your thoughful piece. FYI a number of Sam Youd's novels (including ones written under his own name, and adult John Christophers) have been republished by The SYLE Press.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Thanks for that extra information. It's great news that so many of his books are coming back into print - I've been hunting for second-hand copies of the earlier ones for many years!