Thursday, September 6, 2012

Book Review: The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956)

The world-famous novel of the ultimate famine!

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Essential Must-Read Seemingly Forgotten Dystopian Classic

Blurb: The Death of Grass is an entirely original kind of science-fiction - it is not about space-travel, time-travel, or mechanical men. It recounts the terrifying changes on the face of the earth when the balance of nature is upset - and it takes place not in the future but now.

The characters are middle class people who live serenely until the grass begins to die - upon which their personalities begin imperceptibly to change with the changes that creep over the landscape. The fearful national policies and immediate personal dangers they are faced with are horrible in their impact, and in the dangerous obstacle race for safety (and for life itself) the reader feels himself to be personally and desperately involved.

Thoughts: Recommended to me by the Goodreads recommendations engine during one of the brief periods when it was working, I was initially drawn to the wonderful premise of a simple "what if" science fiction question, namely in this case "what if a virus kills all forms of grass worldwide?" Grass meaning wheat et al not just the wonderful stuff used as a playing surface for tennis, cricket and croquet. It's a premise that would also later go on to form the basis of the brilliant award winning dystopian post-(post?)-cyberpunk thriller The Windup Girl.

But this is very definitely a post-atomic approach towards the genre, with a message that could be picked up by Greenpeace and hippies the world over even today and used as a warning against the way we are destroying our planet. This novel recounts the terrifying changes on the face of the earth when the balance of nature is upset - not at some nebulous date in the future but right now or the now of 1956 at least. Perhaps a re-issue from Al Gore on 200% recycled paper is required?

The story starts off with a global disaster and slowly becomes more and more personal, with a denouement focussing on one barricaded village and a handful of people. The characters are normal people, described in the blurb as middle class, with peaceful lives until the virus begins to take hold and food becomes scarce. In the beginning they make a point of being proud of the British attitude towards hardship, the famous Dunkirk spirit etc, but the predicament slowly changes all of them in irrevocable ways. They must undertake a journey of ever increasing hardships as society falls apart thanks to weak governments (things haven't changed much since 1956 huh?) and the panic of the masses leading to riots (as seen in London just last year but with the desire for new shoes and TVs replaced by a need for food.) And as a reader you can't help but take the journey alongside them thanks to the quality of the writing. Sure it's easy to judge these people for the decisions they make but there's a power at work in Christopher's writing that puts you in the band of survivors and suddenly it's harder to disagree with the man leading you to safety.

I'm not sure how much it actually helped me to enjoy the book but Brief Encounter is one of my favourite movies of all time, being able to imagine Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson as the protagonist Johnny and his wife Ann was an excellent bonus, even if just as a way to understand the speech patterns peculiar to the British middle classes of the era.

It's easy to imagine the stark landscape shorn of all grass, not least because of the volume of post-apocalyptic movies that have been released in recent years. The Book of Eli has an overall colour tone perfectly suited to a grass-free planet but features human attrocities in explicit detail, something Christopher only hints at in this book. It's much better for that too, bad things happen but the prose only really "arrives" in the aftermath and studies the reactions of these ordinary decent people to extraordinary events.

I'm left thinking about The Road and how bleak it was, John Christpher comes close but without being so overt and rubbing your well-fed, happy face in to it. In comparison you don't need to feel bad for being content and living a peaceful existence after putting this book down.

Powerful, thought provoking stuff, despite its content a highly enjoyable read and at under 200 pages not bloated, not rushed but perfectly paced. I give this book my highest recommendation. And shall finish with a transcription from the blurb on the front of my beautiful 1st edition Penguin:

An unusual and absorbing piece of science-fiction about the relentless transformation of England when the balance of nature is upset.

'The Death of Grass sticks with commendable perserverance to the surface of the earth we know...John Christopher has constructed an unusually dramatic and exciting tale.' DAILY MAIL

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