In the last few years dystopian fiction has proved consistently popular. Titles like The Hunger Games have attracted huge fanbases as has the medium-crossing The Walking Dead. The genre of bleak science fiction has a long history of course, going back at least to HG Wells’ The Time Machine. In 1956, the English author John Christopher made an important contribution to it with The Death of Grass. While it hasn’t enjoyed the lasting fame of some other post-apocalyptic fiction, it is fascinating read for anyone with an interest in this area of writing.
The book describes the consequences of a virus which destroys crops on a global scale, forcing people into a desperate and increasingly ruthless struggle for survival. The main focus of the story is the journey of John Cunstance as he tries to lead his family and a band of friends and followers to the safety of his brother David’s farm. Starting out as an uncertain and reluctant chief, as he embraces the position of alpha male, his decisions become ever more brutal and pragmatic.
Part of the success of The Death of Grass lays in its blunt satire of the way that people view themselves as more civilised than others. Early chapters present the unfolding disaster as something distant and overseas that the characters feel could ‘never happen here’. The collapse of this illusion is swift and stark as the virus spreads. In some respects, the book could be seen as a reaction against works like The Day of the Triffids in which a civilized few retreat to a cheerfully isolated existence with chaos kept outside. Here, the chaos is everywhere and retreat is not an option.
While the plot is linear, within it Christopher manages to keep surprising us. The characters behaviour in the crisis differs remarkably to that before it. John’s friend Roger, for example, presents himself at the outset as a no-nonsense cynic but during the course of the book, he emerges as more sensitive and less able to sacrifice others. There are times when the story can still shock, even half a century later. In particular, a child entering into what is to all intents and purposes a consensual paedophilic relationship with an old man is deeply unsettling.
Christopher avoids us giving us an authorial moral voice. The actions of John and the others are neither condemned nor condoned. Instead they are presented as the inevitable outcome of a terrible situation. There is a sadness to John’s loss of his old self but it is clear he can never go back. The ending of the book is both unexpected and, in retrospect, appropriate.
A book written in 1956 is bound to have dated in places. There are times when the dialogue has the reserved, middle class air that Christopher criticized. Despite this, it’s an excellent read, the perfect bridge between the ‘cosy catastrophes’ of Wyndham and the dystopian modernity of Ballard, and a book which anticipates much that has happened in science fiction since.
My next read: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood