The Guardians by John Christopher (1970) 156 p.
John Christopher – author of the Tripods trilogy and The Death of Grass – died back in February, and I didn’t even find out until a few weeks ago, which bummed me out. So I ordered a few of his books off the Internet, ones which I’ve never read, because I like indulging in a bit of nostalgic young adult fiction (a genre which can be nostalgic even when you’ve never read the book in question) and I’m sure a writer who could put out a classic like the Tripods trilogy must have a good backlog.
The Guardians takes place sometime in the mid-21st century, when England has been divided into two worlds – the aristocratic “County,” a land of picturesque countryside and landed gentry and upstairs/downstairs social stratification, and the modern “Conurb,” a bleak, Ballardian cityscape of CCTV and blocks of flats and sports riots. Christopher takes the existing divide in Britain between country/city and upper class/lower class and develops it to its sci-fi conclusion, where the two worlds are separated by electric fences and rigid social control.
The protagonist, Rob, is a young Conurb lad – living in “the London Conurb,” in fact. To his credit, Christopher has developed this world from real places and names, instead of making everything generic, as in some other examples of mid-20th century science fiction. Rob is sent to a boarding school after his father dies, but finds life there unbearable, and – after discovering that his deceased mother originally hailed from Gloucestershire – decides to escape into the County, via Reading. He finds it easier than expected to get through the electric fence, and fortuitously runs into a helpful County family that adopts him into their mansion.
Christopher’s prose style is fairly dry, but also much simpler than I remember it – perhaps because when I read the Tripods trilogy, I was actually in the intended age group. Nonetheless, I found The Guardians to be a fairly engaging novel, and was quite impressed with the themes and ideas it presents to a young target audience. It’s a novel about social control, and balancing freedom against happiness, and I was unsure which side of that argument Christopher was going to land on until the very final pages. He manages to pack quite a lot into a mere 156 pages without the story ever feeling rushed. I was also impressed by how well The Guardians has aged, considering it was written 42 years ago; it actually could have been written in the last decade, and wouldn’t feel at all out of place. The themes about trading liberty for security and the divide between England’s rose-tinted past and pessimistic future are still very much part of the zeitgeist.
Overall, a decent young adult novel. It wasn’t a great book, but it was a quick and easy read and delivered more than I expected from it. Next in line from Christopher’s backlog is The Prince In Waiting, also from 1970, the first book in his “Sword of the Spirits” trilogy.