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August 18, 2008

The Death Of Grass - John Christopher

The Death Of Grass by John Christopher (UK / US) is often talked about as one of the classic post-apocalyptic books. It's funny then that it's not in print. And consequently the second hand copies are going online for a decent amount of money. Fortunately Niall lent me his copy, thanks!

The apocalypse in the story is triggered by a virus which wipes out all types of grass, which includes rice and wheat and of course, plain old grass. The story follows a band of people as they try to escape London and make it to a safe valley in the North of England.

Initially it felt pretty much like a John Wyndham novel. Slowly though differences began to emerge, the main one being that it was a lot nastier. People kill other people for survival, the government tries to nuke London and there is no collective survival instinct beyond immediate small tribes. Also surprising was that the story was just about the journey to escape, whereas I expected it to be a longer examination of the situation.

I particularly enjoyed the slow build up to the apocalypse, which felt real, no sudden cataclysm. And I enjoyed the idea that potatoes could be our saviour :-)

An interesting book, it's easy to see why it's been remembered as a classic, but it doesn't quite reach that status for me.

1 Comment

I don't know who you are and don't have the expertise to find out from your site but I do know a bit about John Christopher.

His real name is Sam Youd. Sam was a science fiction fan through the 1930s and made some of his first sales to John W Campbell's Astounding. However, right from the first story, Christmas Roses, it is plain that the science fiction ideas are a backdrop for the human predicament and that it is human relationships which really interest him.

Alongside those SF stories, he also published a novel a year in the early 1950s as by Samuel Youd. His science fiction was published as by John Christopher, his stories with female protagonists as by Hilary Ford, his cricket novels as by William Godfrey, his hard-boiled detective stories as by Peter Graaf and his dissolute 1960s novels as by Stanley Winchester.

What all these novels have in common is that he is more interested in the way people react to new and different circumstances than exploring the circumstances themselves. This is the genius of Death of Grass - it is a science fiction novel because it deals with a what if scenario but it is a great novel because that isn't the point of the book. The point of the book is to explore how people's characters change or are revealed by the altered circumstances. A woman who is allowed to torture and kill the rapist of her and her daughter and a man who winds up killing his own brother are the real subject of this novel, where society as we know it is breaking down.

Compare the exactly contemporaneous Nevil Shute novel, On The Beach (both were slated for serialisation beginning in the same issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Shute, far more established and best-selling, was dropped in favour of Sam. All Shute's novels tell of lives well lived and have happy endings - except this one. Here, the northern half of the planet has destroyed itself in nuclear war, leaving Australia untouched. But the fallout is gradually seeping south and everyone will soon die of radiation poisoning. Still law, order, duty and responsibility hold to the very last page of the only unhappy ending he ever wrote.

So Sam's novel, The Death of Grass, does examine the situation in the journey of escape to survival. The story is told from the point of view of those on the journey. We only see what they see. In such a world, your horizons shrink until all there is is the tiny group you are in company with. The novel is a classic because Sam is such a good writer he manages to reveal the collapse of world order through this microcosm. But it is much more than a classic of science fiction; it is a classic of 1950s literature, and cruelly overlooked as such.

However, sale of the film rights made him wealthy enough to be able to relinquish his office job and take up writing full time and, indirectly, this gave rise ten years later to his Tripods trilogy which is so highly vaunted as children's fiction, although it is every bit as unflinchingly brutal and real as Death of Grass.

Death of Grass is a classic of science fiction but it doesn't really fit into a movement or a category - none of Aldiss's cosy catastrophes here, and there is no precursor or subsequent novel to form a sequence of influence. As it stands alone, so it can be safely overlooked and that has been its fate. It is time someone produced a uniform edition of his novels. Then you would seen it only ever fit comfortably into one category - it is a Sam Youd novel.

Paul Brazier