The Death of Grass (1956) – John CHRISTOPHER

Exams are over. All is right in the world again. And so back to the good books that are looming on my shelf, waiting for me to read them. To help this, I’ve picked something off the shelves at work that has absolutely nothing to do with that and had a pretty cover. Ah, the fickle ways of the reader.

A virus is sweeping its way across Asia, killing every form of grass known to man. For those in England, this is far removed from their simple lives, and think nothing further of it. But when the virus finally makes its way to the tiny wet island, a group of people band together to escape the plans of the government, and try to reach a country haven, where salvation is waiting for them.

I feel that, had I not recently read The Day of the Triffids, I may have been somewhat more enamored with this novel. There are a lot of similarities between the two, and I’m not sure if that’ because they are both English sci-fi novels of the 50s, or if there’s another reason. Once again, a band of survivors must trek out of the dangerous city that London has become, and try to rebuild their lives in the countryside, where the promise of a better life beckons. The Death of Grass differs, however, by being far grittier than Triffids ever managed. While Wyndham’s novel is concerned with one strong man leading his group out of London to an unknown destination, Grass sets up the interesting conundrum of having several men vying for the position of leader of the group. And while the vote at the beginning of the novel sets John Custstance as our elected leader, events along the way force the other two men – Harold Pirrie and  – to reconsider what this leadership means for them, and what actions they must take to

What is more terrifying, though, is the fact that there are no aliens to blame, no outside forces shaping humanity – the humans are the monster. Particularly, the government of the United Kingdom. Those who have seen Children of Earth will find disturbing similarities to a plan by a British government to control the population of the country in order to solve the food shortage. The plan to drop some nuclear weapons on some large population centres is a terrifying thought – no doubt more terrifying when the novel was first released, with the threat of nuclear warfare from the Cold War still in the public’s mind. This mistrust of the government is seen again and again throughout the novel, and the people in charge are the real villains.

This is interesting, because there  is a fairly large sliding scale of morality in the book for our protagonists as well. The three men in charge are willing to kill other people for their food and supplies with almost no hesitation – these are our heroes. They know what they must do to protect themselves and their families, and they feel fully justified in it. They do have a tendency to pick off smaller groups of people, and are themselves attacked several times. The degeneration of proper English society is fast, but perhaps a more accurate representation of what humanity might do if this were to happen. This nihilistic tone continues right to the ending of the novel, with John having to decide which side to fight with – his family or his new found friends. And personally, while I do understand the decision he made, I wouldn’t have chosen it. Though, Christopher has written an ending that makes it hard for John to choose anything other than what he does.

Also fascinating is the discussion of sexual politics in this new world. When Pirrie realises that he no longer has to put up with the affairs of his younger, beautiful wife, he kills her. Simple. And then wants to take another young girl, whose parents have been killed by our heroes, as his new mistress. It’s all a bit unsettling – but as John realises, he needs Pirrie for his gun prowess, and there’s no reason for him not to do these things anymore. Christopher also doesn’t shy away from rape – with John’s family (wife and daughter) getting a turn each. John, though, seems somewhat disconnected from this, preferring to let the women sort out their feelings. It’s all very 1950s male, in an odd way.

I have one minor niggle, though. I know that if grass is wiped out, that causes a lot of problems for our food supplies. But surely, there are enough potatoes and seafood for everyone? Particularly since most of Asia live off a predominately seafood diet – I know that a lot of rice is included in this, but I’m sure we could all survive. While the fish and chips solution is mentioned throughout the novel, Christopher never seems to do very much with it, preferring to leave it in the background. Having said that though, the ending does seem to imply that this will be the future of humanity.

There’s a lot to like here. While it has some of the trappings of a cosy catastrophe, The Death of Grass does pack a lot more punch that many of Wyndham’s efforts, and many of the efforts of the time from which it comes. In the end, though, it’s no better or worse than any of the many, many other dystopic future novels we’ve all read before.

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