For years now, we’ve treated the land as though it were a piggy-bank, to be raided.

The Death of Grass, by John Christopher

I’ve long been something of a fan of John Wyndham, criticised on occasion for his “cosy catastrophes” in which civilisation falls but people remain generally polite about it. It’s not a criticism I agree with, for a start only two of his novels actually deal in apocalypses (The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes – The Chrysalids takes place centuries after one once order has been restored, and in any event is far from cosy with its religious bigotry, torture and murder). Still, it’s not a charge anyone would lay against John Christopher’s 1956 novel The Death of Grass.

The Death of Grass was a novel that first caught my attention years ago, when I was a teenager. I never saw a copy though, so when John Self reviewed the new Penguin Modern Classics edition over at The Asylum I mentally added it to my to be purchased list. This last week, fancying a break as far from possible from Powell’s wonderful A Dance to the Music of Time, I finally ordered it. As a break between more serious books, it works pretty well, it’s easy to read, powerful and in places is quite horrifying in its portrayal of what people are capable of when pressed. It’s also though not that well written, and the characterisation is dire. It’s worth reading, but it’s not high literature.

Grass generally takes place a couple of years in the then future, so in the late 1950s, but it opens with a prelude in the 1930s where we are introduced to two brothers, John and David, and the farm that David goes on to inherit – a property in a valley closed on three sides and easily sealed off on the fourth. Like Chekhov’s gun, that valley becomes quite important.

As the novel proper opens, famine is sweeping China. A plague that affects rice has caused terrible famine, vast numbers of Chinese are trying to get into Hong Kong in the hope of finding food, but Hong Kong cannot hold against them:

‘You think Hong Kong will fall?’
‘I’m sure it will. The pressure will build up until it has to. They may machine-gun them from the air first, and dive-bomb them, and drop napalm on them, but for every one they kill there will be a hundred trekking in from the interior to replace them.

David said: ‘But if they took Hong Kong – there can’t be enough food there to give them three square meals, and then they’re back where they started.’
‘Three square meals? Not even one, I shouldn’t think. But what difference does that make? Those people are starving. When you’re in that condition, it’s the next mouthful you’re prepared to commit murder for.’

And that, in a nutshell, is the novel. When you’re in that condition, it’s the next mouthful you’re prepared to commit murder for.

At the outset, John Custance is a pleasant and civilised middle class man, happily married with two children. He and his wife play bridge with their friends, Roger and Olivia, Roger occasionally appalling them with his hard cynicism. Still, they’re good people, respectable, the sort you might find in a Wyndham apocalypse. They’re troubled by events in China, all that death, but it’s a long way away.

From the radio, a voice said, in B.B.C. accents:
‘The United Nations Emergency Committee on China, in its interim report published to-day, has stated that the lowest possible figure for deaths in the China famine must be set at two hundred million people…’
Roger said: ‘Dummy looks a bit weak in hearts. I think we might try them out.’

Christopher is making a point here. When we hear of disasters elsewhere, our sympathies often extend to those affected, but generally not for long. There are children to be put to bed, jobs to go to in the morning, washing up to do. With all that, it can be hard to remember the deaths of strangers.

At first, the problem seems restricted to Asia, the disease has spread to Europe, but Europe is not dependent on rice. World governments are confident that a counter to the virus can be found, but the Chinese were confident of that too, and before too long China no longer exists as a nation.

All too soon, the virus has mutated, killing all grass plants, including wheat and barley and the crops upon which our lives depend. Governments lie, reassuring their populaces and claiming that a counter is just around the corner, as food supplies in warehouses grow low and countries stop sending aid increasingly concerned that they may need it themselves. Today in Britain, after BSE, this part of the story doesn’t seem as science fictional as it might, with its self-serving politicians more concerned with the electoral implications of panicking the population than of taking sensible steps to protect them.

Hearing rumours that the government intends to drop atomic bombs on the major cities so as to reduce the population to a sustainable level, John, Roger and their families decide to flee London, heading for that oh so defensible valley. On their way out, they pick up Pirrie, a seemingly mild-mannered gun shop owner who contributes weapons and brings his much younger wife. The roads out of London are blocked off by the military, travel is restricted, and fearing nuclear annihilation they calmly ambush and execute three soldiers manning a roadblock so they can make their escape.

Faced with the threat of starvation, knowing that the country’s food reserves have run out and that they have a day or two at most before everyone else realises it too, the group swiftly become ruthless – killing when they must, leaving others to die rather than risk resources helping them. Pirrie turns out to be a sociopath, utterly remorseless and deadly, he is appreciated all the more for it. As Custance reflect:

They had lived in a world of morality whose lineage could be traced back nearly four thousand years. In a day, it had been swept from under them.

There were some who would choose to die well rather than to live. He was sure of that, and the assurance comforted him.

It comforts him, because they’ll die, and so not compete for food.

Britain’s descent into savagery is swift. There is casual murder, rape, robbery becomes commonplace. In less than 48 hours from the realisation that the food has run out, it’s every man for himself, roving mobs taking what they want and the air force bombing cities to stop the hordes spilling out into the wider country.

At times, the book is genuinely chilling. Custance’s wife and daughter are raped, the rapists are captured and Custance’s wife calmly explains to one as he begs for his life that she decided she would kill him while she was lying there watching him rape her daughter. In another scene, Custance and Pirrie murder a couple for food, then give the surviving daughter to Pirrie as a form of sex slave. Custance all too quickly adapts to his new role, the seemingly ruthless Roger deep down remains a decent man, Custance for all his morality becomes a new feudal chief – able to decide whether others live or die:

After enthronement, the tones of the supplicant beggar were doubly sweet. It was a funny thing.

Christopher’s view of human nature is not a pleasant one. In Grass, those who maintain standards, who try to preserve some decency, die. Those who remain are the new savages, the future is one of barbarism. A world of strong and ruthless men, and those who serve them or die.

The weak points of the novel are easily summarised. The prose is nothing to write home about, workmanlike but it’s the vision it contains that the novel’s worth reading for. Characters are fairly one-dimensional, particularly the women who are bizarrely helpless not even taking turns driving or carrying a gun. It’s still not clear to me why the women need be so helpless, I can see that an apocalypse would make men’s greater strength again more of an advantage, but when Samuel Colt made all men equal he made all women equal too. Here, the women are objects, chattels as one herself angrily comments (though the novel itself seems to agree). They are protected, or raped if protection fails, but beyond cooking they seem to be incapable of doing anything for themselves. The sexual politics of the book are distinctly dated.

But the central vision isn’t. Environmental collapse is a theme more timely than ever, and as Robert Macfarlane reminds us in an excellent (and commendably spoiler-free) introduction, in the real world diseases like Ug99 have already caused crop failure and famine. As he notes, bad as the crop failures in Grass are for the people of the 1950s, they would be much worse for the “just-in-time” delivery world we inhabit today.

Grass is a powerful novel, immediate, not perhaps fine literature but it’s continued fame is deserved. As well as John’s writeup, Tom at A Common Reader wrote it up here. I agree with every word of his and John’s reviews, both of which draw out points I’ve not chosen to focus on in my own comments.

The Death of Grass


Filed under Christopher, John, Post-apocalypse, SF

18 responses to “For years now, we’ve treated the land as though it were a piggy-bank, to be raided.

  1. I read No Blade of Grass while on a PA lit binge and it lead me down the long and windy path of attempting to read all of Christopher’s oeuvre. He was quite prolific but never made it really big until he switched over to young adult fiction. I don’t know if it is the same in Britain, but his Tripods trilogy was a favorite among Canadian schoolchildren in the 80s.

    But it is all his other adult books that he left behind that I am having a great time unearthing and reading. He wrote under several pseudonyms as well. The theme of rape and cuckoldry (and the two together, if you will) figures strongly in many of his books. Often, his protagonists are males who have to deal with their own reaction to their women’s sexual activity (willing or not as the case may be). He comes at it from many different angles and I’ve yet to determine if it is something that personally touched his life or just a general anxiety in response to the developing sexual mores of the times.

    I find his writing to be solid and, though it varies, he is excellent at creating a rich group of characters in some pretty crazy situations. He also is quite effective at skewering the British educated bourgeois of the 60s and 70s, something he does to enjoyable effect in Sweeney’s Island.

    For me, it’s always a treat to find a John Christopher book I haven’t read before in a used bookstore.

  2. Tripods was I think a tv series here, and a very successful one, but I was either too young or too old and largely missed it. I’ve heard of it though, and it was well regarded.

    Fascinating post, thanks. Cuckoldry is, as I’m sure you know, a big issue in this book, as well as what felt to me almost like a fear of female sexuality (though that was linked to one character, and with good reason in the circumstances in the book so I don’t read too much into that).

    I think solid’s fair for his writing (and I don’t see solid as a dismissive term), I did after all enjoy this and it’s an effective and easy read. I had criticisms, but certainly not of the book’s vision or impact. He’s not writing literary fiction, but nor does he pretend to be and nor I think would the book be improved if it were written that way. Matter of fact delivery is appropriate here, perhaps more effective.

    The Road by contrast is beautifully written, but that’s what it’s about in part (it’s certainly not about the setting, which doesn’t entirely convince, have you read it?). Death of Grass for me was much more about the situation than the style, which isn’t to say the style’s bad (it’s not) but that it’s not the point.

    I’m tired I think, I’m starting to repeat myself.

    Anyway, what Christopher’s would you particularly recommend? I am interested in trying others, probably not immediately but I can see why you’d follow him up.

    Oh, and have you read much Wyndham? I may throw one back on the pile (for a reread, I’ve read them all I think) by way of contrast. Though with this, The Road and Riddley Walker all kicking about my recent reading, current reading and future reading piles I’m pretty well served in PA for the moment.

  3. Graham

    I’ve just finished The Death Of Grass myself.

    I liked it, especially having recently read The Day Of the Triffids. The two are similar, in their middle-Englandness, but often startlingly different. There are suggestions of rape in Wyndham, but it never actually seems to happen. Certainly, it would never happen to a main character.

    I wasn’t quite convinced by the moral breakdown. The book kept saying that ethics had lost their meaning, but didn’t really show it. Often, the narrator shot first, so you had little idea whether people were simply defending themselves against him.

    The Road is on my list to read. It sounds good, from what you say. I’m currently on David Brin’s The Postman, an unusually optimistic post-apocalyptic book.

    If you haven’t read it, I do recommend J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. It is rather mindblowing after Wyndham.


  4. The moral breakdown is very fast, I think the protagonist is partly how it’s shown though. Ethics lost their meaning for him very quickly, arguably quicker than for almost anyone else in the novel.

    At first, I kept expecting to see others becoming savage, but really he was becoming savage and justifying it by his expectation that others would do the same.

    The Postman’s quite good as I recall. The premise, a limited nuclear war that leaves the US largely intact, is a bit unlikely but it’s unusually hopeful and I like the way the symbolism of the uniform becomes a symbol both of what was lost and what can be regained. It’s clever stuff from back when Brin was at his peak really.

    I have read The Drowned World, for me more in the territory of The Road (though perhaps better) than Grass (which is closer to Wyndham). I thought I’d written it up here actually, but I must have read it shortly before starting the blog (along with Kingdom Come, which for reasons I’ll post on another time I liked a lot more than most).

    The Drowned World is spectacular I think, with its twisted psychogeography and its vision of a flooded London the regression of which is matched by the regression of the characters.

    But then, Ballard is underappreciated outside of SF circles, I see him as being as much a literary author as an SF one, marrying the two forms, but with exceptions such as Alasdair Gray and Will Self I don’t think Ballard’s had quite the recognition he deserves. Too strange for either field to be entirely comfortable with.

  5. I have The Road on deck and to be honest, I keep putting it off because I’m a little afraid. McCarthy doesn’t pull his punches and I’m, frankly, a bit of a softy. But I definitely recognize its significance in the pantheon of PA fiction and I’ll gird my loins and jump in soon.

    I very much agree with you about Ballard. His social collapses are somehow much subtler and gentler but ultimately much darker psychologically.

    As for Christopher, if you can find it, you might want to check out Pendulum, where an economic collapse engenders a youthful takeover of society. The World in Winter has a really interesting premise, where global cooling forces the wealthy northern countries to escape to the poor equatorial countries, where they become the lower classes. The narrative goes off track in the second half, but it’s still a great read. Finally a straight-ahead sci-fi thriller is The Possessors which is not particularly deep but tight and clever.

    Going to go read your review of the Road now.

  6. Enjoyed your post and the subsequent comments about Christopher and Wyndham. I read all of Christopher’s books for kids in my youth (another fan of The Tripods), and read Wyndham when I was older, a natural progression.

    I don’t think Wyndham can with justice be accused of ‘cosiness.’ The recent televisualisation of ‘The Triffids’ seemed to think that modern viewers would not cope with the bleaker message of the book, which depicted a lost human race which might or might not drag themselves back up.

    Having said that, when I read ‘Death of Grass’ last year I was astonished by the savagery. As you say the prose and characterisation may not be of the best, but his argument was well-made. Excellent review, Max.

  7. I’ll look out for those Walker, thanks. What’s The Comet like?

    Sarah, I think the cosy accusation is unfair too, the original 1970s series has been posted by the BBC on youtube, and it’s noticeable how although the current one is pretty faithful to it the tone of the present one is much less grim. The novel is darker than both, as you note.

    Grass is pretty savage, the more I look back on it the more I think it’s intentional that one wonders if the protagonist is right about people reverting so quickly – he’s the one reverting, he’s the best example of what he warns against. He exults in the idea others might cling to civilisation, as it means he’ll be able to defeat them.

    He starts as a good, respectable, middle class man. But given the opportunity, he embraces primitivism, I wouldn’t go as far as to say he’s an unreliable narrator but I think he is the unwitting exemplar of what he fears others will become.

  8. I’ve been looking for this work for a long time — even the paperback copies are a fortune online — I have no idea why….

    Wonderful review!

  9. Thanks. The Penguin Classics edition is nice. You should be able to get it from the bookdepository wherever you’re based.

    Have you read any Richard Morgan? Given how much you liked Neuromancer it’s well worth reading Altered Carbon if you haven’t. I’ve written it up here as you’ll see if you’re checking out my sf category.

  10. Max: I tend to prefer sci-fi written before 1980… SO, my dabbles in post-1980s works were many years ago. But yes, I’ll definitely check out your review.

  11. On the more retro side have you read any Clifford D Simak? A huge talent.

    Also, have you read The Stars My Destination or The Demolished Man? You probably have, but in a way I hope you haven’t as if you love earlier sf and haven’t read those you’re in for such a treat.

  12. Of course! I’ve read probably 8 or so of his novels (Way Station, City, The Wanderer, Project Pope, Time and Again, Cemetery World, etc.).

    Yup, I’ve read both The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man 🙂 I preferred The Demolish Man actually… Although, I can’t remember too much of the work since I read it 8 years ago.

  13. I’ve read a lot of Simak, though not I think The Wanderer or Project Pope. Wonderful writer. Way Station is a masterpiece.

    Hm, on a not very related note how about Wilson Tucker? He’s not so well known now, I didn’t encounter him at all as a kid, but many of his are absolutely brilliant.

    I see you’ve just got Hawksbill Station. I’ve not read it in ages but I remember it as being one of the good ones. I’ve subscribed to your blog so I’ll be interested to see what you think.

    The Demolished Man is probably the more accomplished of the two, but I still prefer Stars. That’s the thing isn’t it, it’s not just about the quality of the particular work. It’s also about that chemistry between book and reader.

  14. The Wanderer won the Hugo for Best Novel…. Not nearly as good as Way Station. Have you read Cemetery World? It’s bizarre — in a good way — although, a underdeveloped and somewhat hasty novel.

    I have a ton of Silverberg to read — that recent acquisition list post also included his Master of Life and Death — and, from other used bookstore trips, Son of Man, Time of Changes, and a few others…

    I’m very excite about Hawksbill Station — the premise sounds fantastic.

  15. I’ve only heard of Wilson Tucker — I’ve not read one of his books… Although, I do have a soft spot for underwater cities so the 1950s The City in the Sea has been on my to acquire list for a while…

  16. The Wanderer is Lieber, I googled. I have read that, it’s not a patch on Way Station – you’re quite right.

    I’ve read loads of Simak. Simak and Silverberg were probably my favourite two writers for a long time. Cemetery Station was among them. I agree with your view. I liked it (not sure I’ve read a Simak I didn’t like) but it’s not his best.

    You’ve mentioned a Tucker I’ve not read. I should correct that. I’ve read The Lincoln Hunters, Wild Talent, The Long Loud Silence and The Year of the Quiet Sun – all brilliant. I’ve read and liked, but wasn’t quite so utterly blown away by, Ice and Iron and I’ve read one other (possibly The Witch) which didn’t do much for me at all. I must track down The City in the Sea now I’m aware of it. Thanks.

  17. Oops, crud. I forgot. You’re right.

    Thanks for alerting me to that — O porous memory….

    Some of the Tucker covers are great — for example, The Long Loud Silence.

    Tangent: Do you know of The Internet Speculative Fiction Database? It has searchable author publication histories (and you can search by cover artist) and most of the cover images as well.

  18. Simak’s first novel, Cosmic Engineers (serialized in the late 30s published in novel form in 1950) is pretty atrocious — he hadn’t really found his style yet… No pastoral scenes 😉

    Great cover though:

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