Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of The Death of Grass by John Christopher

In the decades following the second world war, disaster/catastrophe fiction was something of a thing in British fiction.  From John Wyndham to J.G. Ballard, a variety of scenarios, some more and some less believable, were imagined depicting the human reaction to massive and abrupt social and environmental change.  Wyndham’s falling-star blindness followed by mutant, carnivorous plants that just so happen to prey on the blind is beyond far-fetched, but Ballard’s The Burning World (aka The Drought) remains a realistic look at the psyche in response to mass water shortages—the only real science fictional element in fact being the premise.  Throwing his hat into the catastrophe ring in 1956 was Sam Youd (better known by his pen name, John Christopher) with The Death of Grass (published in the US as No Blade of Grass).  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies meets Ballard’s The Drought, Christopher produced an inconsistent, dramatic, and occasionally thought-provoking fashion story of an England turned upside down by lack of food.

A plot introduction to The Death of Grass is quite a simple affair: a 1950s’ era England deals with the effects of a plant virus that wipes out grain production and causes a major food shortage, in turn throwing the country into chaos.  The tale told through the eyes of one John Custance, the man must take a journey from ravaged London to his brother’s farm in the countryside where a well-protected valley promises safety and provisions for he, his family, and a small handful of hangers-on looking to escape the brutal realities of humanity gone feral. The majority of the novel’s content found in situations where John must make the most dire of decisions and the resulting ethical quandaries, often egged on by his brutal companion Pirri, to elaborate would spoil the story.  Suffice to say Christopher uses tight prose to depict scenes which put humanities’ atavistic and civilized aspects at odds with one another in provocative fashion.

As with a lot of popular fiction, these types of moral quandaries make for interesting reading.  A sort-of science fiction version of Lord of the Flies, The Death of Grass attempts to portray how close civilization is to devolving to animal ways when pushed to the extreme.  Many of the situations depicted force the characters to deal with death in some form—not only their own, but others, and more importantly, when.  Through these choices, the portrayal of Custance is not very consistent.  In one scene he blindly murders innocent men, the next he lets a small group rob him blind without a shot, and in the next he thinks nothing of blasting a farmer to steal his food.  This contradiction comes to a head in the final scene (no spoilers) wherein it’s clear that Christopher, as can be found in Lord of the Flies, had been trying to construct his narrative in such a way as to arrive at an extreme but yet not unlikely scenario.  But given the inconsistency of prior events, Christopher’s climax comes across more melodramatic than definitive statement—hurtful rather than helpful to the overall intent.  Overall these scenes, regardless consistent with character portrayal or not, do serve to illustrate Christopher’s theme, only the impact could have been much stronger were the character build-up more reliable.

In the end, The Death of Grass is a precursor to a lot of contemporary post-apocalyptic novels featuring and/or examining the darker side of human nature when pressed to survive.  Undoubtedly many of the scenes, regardless 1956 or 2017, would play out in some similar fashion were the majority of food supplies to dry up—and we all know a guy like Pirri.  Written in tight, clipped prose that keeps the story moving at a fast pace, Christopher maintains great focus throughout.  Certainly a precursor to J.G. Ballard’s later efforts in the area of catastrophe science fiction and a peer to John Wyndham’s fiction, fans of either writer will likely enjoy Christopher’s novel.  (And don’t ask about the title: I don’t have any good ideas off the top of my head, but for certain something less generic and melodramatic would have better.)

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