Monday, 15 January 2018

The Death of Grass

John Christopher The Death of Grass (1956)
A classic, I was reliably informed, and so - having already been impressed by two of Christopher's Tripods novels - I kept an eye open, eventually finding a US edition retitled No Blade of Grass with a cover promising the heaving of bosoms and stuff; and it is a classic, and a classic very much in the mold of a John Wyndham novel wherein stiff upper lipped types try to get by in a world ruined by agency of a massive global disaster. The difference, as Brian Aldiss clearly took great pleasure in pointing out, is that the upper lips of Christopher's protagonists soon lose their stiffness. In Trillion Year Spree, his history of science-fiction literature, Aldiss berates Wyndham for writing cosy catastrophes wherein the central characters have a jolly old romp despite the alien invasion, end of civilisation, or whatever, additionally praising Christopher for putting his own cast of survivors through a genuinely harrowing meat grinder of a tale.

Anyway, what we have is the destruction of the ecosystem through a virus which kills grass in all of its forms, notably including wheat, corn, and rice. So humanity is fucked, no more bread, and not much upon which livestock can graze, and civilisation collapses, and it looks as though the government have dropped atomic bombs on the larger cities in hope of reducing the population to numbers which might stand a better chance of long term survival. We follow Christopher's protagonists across country as they make for the sanctuary of an isolated valley one of them recalls from childhood. They have guns, they pick up strays, they encounter other roving bands of scavengers, and then it all turns unexpectedly bleak as they meet Jane's family, kill them in self defence, then debate whether it would be kinder to kill the aforementioned Jane than leave her to be raped by the next bunch to stumble upon the house. So it's a long way from being anything you could describe as cosy.

That being said, I think the cosy catastrophe label is a little unfair, and while it might apply to some of Wyndham's writing, I really don't see it with Triffids or Kraken; and on the other hand, whilst the people of The Death of Grass find themselves thrust into a world in which conventional morality will get you killed, we're nevertheless dealing with persons who would romp under other circumstances, and whose post-apocalyptic survival strategies serve as contrast to a lost golden age of traditional middle class values. Chaps are in charge and hoping things don't get too beastly, whilst women are to be protected because they can cook and bear children. The novel takes a dim view of humanity bordering on misanthropic whilst being slightly hamstrung by its harking back to moral values which arguably weren't that amazing in the first place.

Of course, it's still a great novel, and significantly one which was rewritten by Cormac McCarthy as The Road - a genuinely harrowing trawl through a similar apocalypse with a better grounding in basic humanity, less of the retired colonel, and which otherwise makes The Death of Grass look like some bloody awful Terry Nation effort.

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