Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Review: Death of Grass by John Christopher

A bleak novel, certainly bleaker than you might expect from a novel written in the 1950s Death of Grass centres on the spread of the Chung Li virus, which attacks rice initially before mutating to attack all known grasses causing a famine. The novel centres upon a family, the Custances, who flee London with some friends and with a mysterious and often overly helpful man named Pirrie, as the country slides into martial law and chaos when the starvation caused by Chung Li's spread starts to bite. The characters' goal is Westmorland Valley, in Cumbria, where John Custance's brother David lives. Along the way they suffer horrific attacks, traumatic events and worse.

As with a lot of post apocalypse novels the cause of the apocalypse is less important than its fallout. The novel is a study in societal collapse, that old axiom that civilisation is three meals away from anarchy figures strongly in the narrative.Tribalism, distrust, and gang violence prosper as the famine bites and survival becomes a struggle. Whilst today this seems to harp upon a tired old theme, the destruction of scociety, in the 1950s it felt prescient: the horrors of World War 2 were still fresh in the mind. They had not receded into cliche as they have now. In many ways the novel is almost a classic case of hard  men making hard decisions, as Custance's Liberal Humanism comes under attack. The new world has none of the sureties of the old one and he is forced to become increasingly pragmatic, abandoning his principles in the name of survival. This shifting nature, which surely underlines the way society cajoles or allows us to behave in certain fashions becomes  apparent and there are some truly shocking moments, reflecting the changes the characters, particularly Custance, go through.

For the people around him, the novel reinforces the ideas that women and children would be particularly vulnerable in this sort of situation. It defaults to conservative views of gender relations, assuming that men are needed to protect women, a model under which sex might as well be a form of currency offered in return for safety. I'm pretty sure that says more about the social attitudes of the era it's set in than it does anything else, but after Wyndham's almost ruthlessly practical women, its a shock. I sense that Christopher may almost be writing an answer to Wyndham's post apocalyptic novels where gender relations are renegotiated and new balances are struck, as far as biology allows. 

The foreword of my copy compares the novel to Lord of the Flies and its easy to see why. The novels are both solidly mundane, there's no aliens or psychic powers, zombies or anything else; even the atom bomb scarcely gets more than a passing mention. Instead Death of Grass is human orientated, concerned with the effects of starvation upon general populations and the horror that would breeds. People are far more terrifying, arguably, than any movie monster. There may not be a Piggy moment, but Christopher pulls few punches in this down to earth examination of how the loss of a basic type of food would affect the human race.