The Lotus Caves

I did not read The Lotus Caves as a child, but the author’s famous Tripod series was one of the most memorable reading experiences of my middle-grade years. So when people were twitter-talking about this out-of-print title and a planned TV series around its premise, I tracked down a copy through the library.

Christopher’s books are franker than many books of that era. It’s not just the perils that face these young people or the necessary violence they use to survive (more pronounced in the Tripod series than this stand-alone book), it’s a mental attitude that’s hard to pin down: the way the young heroes take an inventory of their own strengths and weaknesses, the way they understand their situation and strategize accordingly. Books for young people usually abound with empathy. Christopher’s books are imbued with a more wary cynicism.

The Lotus Caves was published in 1969, when interest in the moon was obviously high (it’s also when Jerome Beatty resumed this series). It’s set a hundred years in the future, when a moon colony has been established and children grow up in “the bubble,” a dull existence with artificial food and limited interactions with earth. Though passingly amused by the idea of photographing mail and rocketing the microfilm to the moon (Christophers future has no digital technology), I was overall impressed with the vividness and verisimilitude of his moon colony; he’s in the realistic school of sci-fi where he must be accountable for his visions, and nothing here was beyond reach in one hundred years. That we are nowhere near realizing such a place is our own failure.

The main character is Marty, a fourteen-year-old who has never lived on Earth. When Marty’s best friend takes a one-way trip back to the Earth, Marty takes up with a solitary, rebellious boy named Steve. Steve goads Marty into minor, then more serious, mischief. Ultimately, they take a moon crawler past the safe perimeter and start exploring the lunar landscape. They find an early earthling settlement, discover a mystery, set out to solve it, and soon find themselves in even more trouble than they reckoned.

The Lotus Caves plays on the same themes as The Tripods: young people kept prisoner by an alien intelligence, which is able to control their minds. In this case, the imprisonment is a less apparently oppressive one than the torture endured by young slaves in the The Tripods series. The alien is a gigantic, infinitely flexible plant-like thing inhabiting a deep cave within the moon; it does not actively seek out prisoners, but lay claims to those who fall into its chambers as Marty and Steve do. It gives its prisoners everything they need, while slowly assimilating them into its own, more powerful, alien intelligence.

The title is an allusion (explicit in the text) to the lotus-eaters scene in The Oddysey. As a late sixties book, it might have been inspired by the counter-culture of that era (though treated here as a dazed apathy, not a hedonistic trip), but equally inspired by the dullness of modernity. In any case, it’s a pregnant allegory, and it’s easy to imagine an original Star Trek episode built around the same premise.

On the other hand, the plant might simply be a MacGuffin, the necessary test that Marty must encounter and overcome, finding the mental resolve to overwhelm the plant’s superior intelligence, assert his leadership over the bull-headed Steve, escape the caves and unflinchingly face the consequences when he returns to the bubble.