The Death of Grass, by John Christopher: Review
I first came across this book a little while ago. It looked like a nice, short, self-contained piece of fiction, written in the 1950s at what must have been - if not the height, then certainly approaching it - of nuclear Cold War fever. It is also set in England, which is fairly rare amongst post-apocalyptic fiction - at least, the books that I have read.
I am definitely a fair weather post-apocalyptic fiction reader. I have not read that many, and those that I have read tend to be the most popular releases. Certainly books that I can call to mind are The Road, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Station Eleven, as well as The Stand. Actually, let me look back at my Goodreads…
I see I’ve also given World War Z a go (which I didn’t really get on with); Philip K Dick’s The Game players of Titan; The Handmaid’s Tale (potentially dubiously genre-d here); and Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World (actually one of my favourite books). So perhaps I’ve read quite a few, actually. Oh yes, and I Am Legend. So, in fact, loads.
I was initially going to say that post-apocalyptic fiction seems to follow a fairly formulaic path, but in fact all of those books are wildly different, and each very good (for the most part, in my opinion). There is something enticing about reading about the collapse of society. You cannot help but wonder how you yourself would react – whether you would be a hard-nosed survivalist, killing your neighbours, former colleagues, and countrymen in order to survive, or whether you would be a more collaborative world-builder, cooperating with those people, sharing out scarce resources, et cetera.
I suppose the biggest factor in these two paths, and everything in between, is the nature of the apocalypse itself. A nuclear war is likely to simply kill everybody, irradiate the survivors and give them all manner of cancers, and slowly kill the earth in a nuclear winter. Conversely, a zombie virus outbreak could be much more easily and effectively contained than in every zombie movie ever made, and one can see a post-zombie society returning to normal within as little as a decade or two.
Anyway, the Death of Grass. This book is about a virus called the Chung-Li Virus that affects all types of grass. It originates in China, and kills off rice initially, before it mutates and spreads to other Western staples like cereal crops. The book spends about 50 pages introducing us to the characters and their comfortable, professional suburban lives in London, before the virus gets out of control, countries pull up the drawbridges everywhere, starvation becomes a frighteningly clear and present danger, and London is quarantined (and travel is banned more generally).
The main character, a man called John, and his family live in London, as well as the main character’s close friend, a man called Roger, who works for the government and so has the inside track on what is going on. John’s brother, David, a bit of a survivalist and pessimist, owns a potato farm in the rural north of England - remember potatoes are not affected by the virus - and has spent the last year or so fortifying his farm in anticipation of the impending apocalypse. Roger discovers, by virtue of his role as a civil servant, that the government has been lying about the severity of the situation in order to keep everybody calm – and in fact 30 million people are expected to starve to death.
“Damn it!' John said. 'This isn't China.' 'No,' Roger said. 'This is a country of fifty million people that imports nearly half its food requirements.' 'We might have to tighten our belts.' 'A tight belt,' said Roger, 'looks silly on a skeleton.”
Roger persuades John and their respective families, as well as a (as it turns out, sociopathic) local gun shop owner and his guns, to get out of London that evening before all of the roads are sealed off. They manage to just as the news breaks, and so begins their arduous and dangerous cross-country journey to David’s potato farm, where they plan to hole up and weather the storm. That journey, and the trials and tribulations that accompany it, takes up the remainder of the page count.
The Death of Grass is not a long book. It’s about 200 pages, though the text is small. It’s a fantastic idea, and if the book were to be written today, in a more modern style, I daresay it would be much more visceral, haunting, and cinematic in scope. As it is, the prose is quite staid. That’s not to say it’s bad by any stretch, just that it’s a victim of the writing style of the 1950s, which to my mind, can be quite slow, formal, and not quite as exciting and dramatic as we would expect as modern readers.
And that isn’t to say that exciting and dramatic things do not happen; there is plenty of killing and murder in this book, as well as rape and sexual assault, and allusions to both of those things. It’s just that the prose robs these events of the sense of urgency and horror that we would naturally expect. It’s the difference between watching a black and white movie from the 1950s, and Se7en. And it isn’t appropriate to criticise the book for this; that was simply the writing style of the time. It just makes for a slightly jarring, sanitised read, given the subject matter.
The book explores some great themes. I did very much like the characters’ arrogance; that they thought that being good, British, Westerners, with stiff upper lips and a good grip on themselves and their emotions, set them above the (what they considered to be) easily-excitable and frightened Chinese and other Asians. The characters are at lengths in the first quarter of the book to point out that although the situation in Asia is desperate – with mass riots, mob violence, cannibalism, and all the other horrible things that go along with the complete collapse of society – they simply don’t think that British people are capable of such barbarism, and that they will whether the storm in a much better and more orderly fashion. So it is gratifying to then see that, when the rubber meets the road, the characters and their fellow countrymen are quick to murder, rape and loot.
This does, however, give rise to my second main criticism of the book. My difficulty is not that the murder, rape and loot happens - I can absolutely see this happening; rather, it is how quickly this happens. John is a mild-mannered architect from London, a family man, as juxtaposed by his more rambunctious friend Roger. However, it is John who - within a space of literally a day - becomes a cold-blooded murderer, killing without compunction, including people who are unarmed. He approaches this grim task with such level-headed detachment, matter-of-factly explaining to his horrified wife that it’s now kill or be killed, that you find yourself reading the book with an eyebrow cocked. Again, I don’t doubt that, in such a situation, people would resort to extreme measures. But killing somebody else is an extremely difficult thing to do in any circumstances; soldiers on the battlefield struggle with it, and have nightmares about it for years afterwards. I think it should have taken John a bit more than a day or two to get there.
The Death of Grass is rightly considered a classic, and I did enjoy and rip through it. I can imagine that it was an extremely disturbing read at the time of its first publication in the same way War of the Worlds was, and it is a surprisingly and unremittingly bleak book. Modern readers will probably find its presentation a bit tame, in spite of the subject matter, but that is not to say that it has not earned its place amongst the pantheon of post-apocalyptic fiction.