The Death of Grass by John Christopher
Published by Penguin, March 2009; originally published 1956.
Review by Mark Yon
The republishing in the UK of this classic, long out of print, is an unexpectedly good read, though its content is very, very bleak. Now perhaps in these days of global warming, Asian bird flu and genetically modified crops, it is perhaps time for a revaluation.
The story begins with the announcement of a virus, the Chung-Li virus, appearing in Asia wiping out grass and members of the grass family species. Though the announcements are made, little change is noticeable to John Custance and his family in London. Food supplies still appear from the British colonies and life pretty much goes on as normal with a slight tightening of belts and that British philosophy of ‘making do’. But then, when the virus appears in England, it is realised that the extent of the problems in Asia have not been fully explained. The consequential breaking down of society leads to John being involved in a struggle to escape to safety, to his brothers’ farm in the Lake District.
Reading this book was a shock. Originally published at about the same time as John Wyndham’s much more famous novel, The Day of the Triffids, The Death of Grass looks at similar catastrophic themes to Wyndham, but with a much bleaker outcome.
Strangely, though over 50 years old, I found that many of the themes are prescient to today’s society, the reliance on other countries for food, the ‘carry on as normal against adversity’ attitude, though there are important differences. There are, perhaps less surprisingly, elements of the novel that are in tune with the society of the 1950’s yet strikingly out of step with today. Perhaps most anachronistic is the role of women portrayed here, with the female characters very much taking a backseat whilst the men sort things out. It is a surprise what Christopher managed to pass by the publishers in the straight-laced context of the day, however. Rape is implied here, though without too much detail, unlike the surprises of murder, revenge killing and mercy killing reflected here. The book is shockingly logical and cold in its portrayal of such horrific events and that makes its effects so much the more effective.
But before we get too carried away in emphasising the books prescience, there are places that bring us down to earth and remind us that this is a product of half-a-century ago. Because this book’s context is the England of the 1950’s, there are societal differences that remind us that there are differences between now and then. Most obviously, communication is not what it is today. In Death of Grass, people predominantly listen to the radio for information, rather than watch the television. Perhaps more noticeably different, radio news broadcasts by the BBC are trusted by the masses (at least initially) as logical, sensible and unbiased. (How different from some of the views of today!)
Similarly, entertainment has clearly changed. In Death of Grass, it is a little jarring to find that an evening’s jollity depends upon the middle classes playing bridge for entertainment rather than trawl the Internet, slump in front of the gogglebox or play on the Wii. On a wider scale, travelling between countries is more by boat than by aeroplane. Diplomacy between countries reflects this limitation in communication also. As the Cold War was distinctly chilly at this point, the problems are made worse by countries refusing to talk to each other until it is perhaps too late. (And perhaps that is another situation that has come around again to bite us.)
The book also reflects some of its contemporary concerns - a nation with its adults coming to terms in the aftermath of war, with the need for rationing accepted for the good of all suddenly reverting to a ‘what’s mine is mine’ philosophy when the situation becomes critical.
What is perhaps most shocking is, once it does happen, how quickly normal life deteriorates. Within the space of days, the characters go from upright members of the middle-classes (civil servant, ex-military soldier) to civilians shooting policemen, doling justice to criminals and killing people who get in their way in their escape from the big city. This must have been an eye-opener in the disciplined 1950’s.
Less convincing, though perhaps understandable in the context of the times, are the actions of the politicians in the tale. Clearly reflecting both the lure and the fear of technology in a globe firmly entrenched in a Cold War in the 1950’s, the government’s final solution is that in order to avoid the future horror of overpopulation (in the light of rapidly reducing food resources) they must order the atom bombing of Britain’s big cities, so that the survivors have enough to live on/with. They also then, rather conveniently, leave to set up a provisional government in Canada (not too far-fetched, that, as would the British government had the Germans invaded England in World War Two.) This seems a little too incredulous today, yet understandable when compared with the Australian rabbit-proof fence policy or the farming analogy of wiping out all traces of disease in order to ensure the survival of the main plant.
What struck me most about this book was that if elements of the book are shocking now, in the context of when it was first published, this must have been an appalling book. More than his contemporary John Wyndham’s ‘cosy catastrophe’, this is a catastrophe clearly on the edge. Written in a lean style, pared to the bone, the story is exposed as even more shocking in its matter-of-fact delivery. There are no safe answers here, no truly happy ending, though the last words are weakly optimistic. What this book does is highlight to the reader of 2009 that, if nothing else, the breakdown of society it portrays is perhaps more relevant and more possible today.
On finishing the book, I realised that, if anything, we are less self-sufficient as a nation now than we were in the 1950’s. And that is a frightening thought, in these days of global corporations and universal credit crunches.
Recommended: though easy to scorn fifty years on, The Death of Grass is a sharp reminder of how thought-provoking British 1950’s SF could be.
Mark Yon, March 2009
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