Review: The Death of Grass, by John Christopher

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I figured I might start writing up reviews on books I’ve read.  At some point I’d like to revisit books I read when I was younger and that have influenced me some way.  One of those was definitely John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, but those aren’t the books I’m looking at today.  Instead, I’ll be talking about one of his other novels that I read for the first time recently.

Before Zombies took over media, plant apocalypses were all the rage, such as in John Wyndham’s famous novel The Day of the Triffids (and in a real Plants vs Zombies scenario, the Plants would obviously win as the zombies are too stupid to recognise them as a threat and their rotting corpses would serve as fertilizer for more plants).

But The Death of Grass (US title ‘No Blade of Grass’, which was also the name of a not very good movie adaptation), published in 1956, doesn’t feature Zombies or carnivorous plants and blinding meteor showers.  Instead John Christopher writes about a terrifyingly realistic apocalypse scenario in which a virus destroys all the world’s crops.

Our main character, John, is an engineer living in fifties London with his wife, Ann, and two children.  He is friends with Roger, a government public relations officer, his wife Olivia and their child.  As the story begins we see them all going about their cosy English lives, visiting pubs, going the beach, drinking tea, discussing their children’s future.  John would like his son Davey to be an architect, while daughter Mary wants to be a doctor, but it’s expected of course that she will grow up and marry.

But while planning the future, horrific events are unfolding on the other side of the world, in China.  A new virus has been eating its way through all of the rice.  Millions are starving and rioting.  Hong Kong is under siege.  Europe and America are sending all the aid they can spare, but it’s happening so far away that John and his family don’t imagine it will affect them.  Some of the language the character’s use when talking about China may come across a bit racist to modern readers, but it shows their attitude of ‘well, at least that will never happen here’.

But the news continues to get worse.  Just as scientists think they’ve found a way to beat the virus, a new strain is discovered.  And this new strain doesn’t just affect rice, but all grasses, which of course includes wheat, barley, rye… and it’s spreading.  Still, our characters remain optimistic that the virus will be defeated.  Well, Roger is a little worried, but says of humanity’s chances, ‘If I were a Martian, I wouldn’t take odds even of a thousand to one on intellect of that kind (humans) being defeated by a little thing like a virus.’  Funny, because of course in H.G Wells story ‘The War of the Worlds’, a virus is exactly what defeats the Martians.

The world begins to tighten its belt, nations imposing rationing on its citizens as the virus spreads everywhere.  But that isn’t so bad, and still our characters believe that the horrors that took place in the east couldn’t possibly occur here.  After all, they’re British.

But the last of hope of stopping the virus fails.  Governments agree to keep it a secret while they prepare drastic measures, which including quarantining and nuking cities in the hope that reducing the population will allow the rest to subsist off of fish and chips.  Roger gets wind of the plan and convinces John to flee London with their families – John’s brother has a farm in a valley in Yorkshire where he grows potatoes and beets, and is easily defensible – before news leaks to the rest of the population and chaos ensues.  And leak it does, the whole country rapidly descending into total anarchy.

Fans of modern post-apocalyptic fiction, such as The Walking Dead, will recognise a number of the tropes and changes our characters go through during their flight and fight for survival.  On their way to the valley they encounter rape gangs, looters and local dictators arising in all the chaos.  All the while, they are forced to take brutal measures to ensure their own survival.  And what’s most unsettling to the reader is how easily they adapt to this new world of violence and theft.  How quick it is that they abandon all notions of decency and morality, and in this case ‘Britishness’, now that civilization has crumbled.

Their group does grow in size on the way as well, John falling into the role of chieftain.  In the end, far from where they started, he’s looking at the gun that had kept them safe all the way from London, thinking he will pass it on to his son one day.

If you’re a fan of the apocalypse I would definitely recommend this book.  It’s very well written and the threat of an epidemic laying waste to the world’s crops is far more real than most as grass diseases are common.  If you’re a survivalist and want to plan for every possible contingency, a good idea would seem to be planting potatoes behind your zombie proof walls and inside your nuclear bunker.

Sadly the book is out of print as far as I know.  You can get it on Kindle from Amazon.co.uk, but for the rest of the world I don’t know the easiest way to find it.

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