REVIEW: The Death of Grass (1956)

A Book by John Christopher

Man science fiction is wild! Who would ever dream up a story about a virus that started in China and was hidden until it wreaked havoc on the local population, only to spread all over the world and cause a great upheaval? Then Westerners would react in a racist way and blame Asian society for the problems. Governments downplay the virus, and look for ineffective quick solutions only to have it prolong the situation until it blows up in everyone’s face? Then the worst of humanity comes into play and people start splitting into tribes that hate each other…..man….haha……crazy…..

…..oh

Yeah, The Death of Grass, written in 1956 by John Christopher, isn’t about a virus directly deadly to mankind but one that attacks plant life that we rely on to feed the immense population of The Earth. I chose quite the opportune time to start reading this seeing that we’re about to enter a third year of a global pandemic that most naively thought we could wipe out in two weeks back in early 2020. It was hard not to nod my head in the beginning of the book, as a 70 year old book accurately outlines every step of the nonsense we’ve been dealing with for the last few years to such a degree it almost became an uncomfortable read. I’ve been on my John Christopher kick after reading The Tripods, so I figured I’d try a book I’ve never heard of by the author.

“The Chung-Li virus has devastated Asia, wiping out the rice crop and leaving riots and mass starvation in its wake. The rest of the world looks on with concern, though safe in the expectation that a counter-virus will be developed any day. Then Chung-Li mutates and spreads. Wheat, barley, oats, rye: no grass crop is safe, and global famine threatens.
In Britain, where green fields are fast turning brown, the Government lies to its citizens, devising secret plans to preserve the lives of a few at the expense of the many.
Getting wind of what’s in store, John Custance and his family decide they must abandon their London home to head for the sanctuary of his brother’s farm in a remote northern valley.
And so they begin the long trek across a country fast descending into barbarism, where the law of the gun prevails, and the civilized values they once took for granted become the price they must pay if they are to survive.”

I feel that media from the 80’s and 90’s was far too optimistic – stories like The Watchmen or Independence Day showed the hope that everyone would band together to fight “the real enemy”, in both cases aliens, but the idea still stands. With the advent of the Covid-19 global pandemic, and the advent of militant libertarianism, I think we’re all doomed just like what Christopher predicted. Who would have known how the film Children of Men would be a better representation of future catastrophe response.

In The Death of Grass society completely unravels in Great Britain after the government comes to the conclusion they are at “the point of no return” regarding food shortages. Even if everyone planted potatoes from there on out, there would be no way everyone would survive. Livestock will perish within the year and any staple grains are soon to be eradicated. It leaks that The Parliament and Prime minister have opted to “nuke” mass population centers to stifle unrest and “the elites” plan escape to North America. As you can imagine, the population is not very receptive to this.

We don’t actually see if this plan goes to fruition, but the characters do witness bombers flying overhead at one point, so it’s safe to say something bad went down. It takes less than a week for the warlord culture to reign supreme, with everyone resorting to murder, theft, coercion, and even slavery to make it through. I personally think three days until everything unravels is a bit over the top, but if people are getting nuked, as implied, perhaps not.

This book is a product of it’s time, and many modern readers may have issues with how class issues and women are portrayed here. I will say, I even had trouble reading about some of the “bad things” that happen in the book – things such as rape and murder. In the beginning, we meet a character named Roger that is quite “old-school” even for the 1950’s. He laments how society is going, and knows that his views on things such as race and gender are increasingly behind the times. Speaking in heavy racial epithets, he bemoans Chinese society and seems to be racist against Asians altogether. Some of the stuff he says is blunt and unpopular, and is largely brushed off.

But as the story goes on, the group dynamic changes. John Custance and his wife Ann start out as hopeful, perhaps optimistic people, and end up with a version of society that shocks and terrifies them. John is basically forced to become a feudal lord of sorts, perhaps the leader of a warband, due to his intellect alone. society somewhat slips back to a patriarchal model where women are seen as nothing more than breeding machines and men are leaders and big macho warriors. The fact that this happens so quickly, almost implies that the book is saying this is the natural state of things and perhaps Roger was right – Hell, Roger almost becomes less conservative as other slide past him on the scale. somewhat troubling of a view, all things considered.

It’s very interesting to me that the 1950’s and 1960’s, in the realm of science fiction at least, was obsessed with the question of what would happen if there was overpopulation, or some kind of food shortage in the world. Numerous books and films such as this or the book that would be adapted into Soylent Green sounded the alarm on such issues and how we may or may not be able to handle it. When you get to the 1970’s and 1980’s this concern is replaced largely with a heightened focus on nuclear doomsday scenarios – just food for thought, I think stuff like that is very interesting.

The Death of Grass was made into a film at one point, although it appears to not be very unpopular. Airing in 1970, the film was described by the author as not very good. “Sam Youd (John Christopher’s real name) didn’t see the film until years after its release when it was broadcast as a late night movie. He lasted until the first advert break and then retired to bed.” The film was a departure from the book, and became very controversial due to a scene depicting a rape that lingered too long, as to become gratuitous. I have not seen the film as of yet, but the general lukewarm reviews make it pretty low on my list to jump at.

This was a very interesting book, but it is not for everyone. I would be hard pressed to do a full recommendation simply because some of the darker things in the story are VERY unsettling, and will send up a number of triggers for certain people. I quite enjoy post-apocalyptic stories, and honestly this was probably one of the more plausible ones seeing how terrible humanity can be sometimes. The plot is something we may see variations of, but honestly I can’t say I have read or seen anything with the exact same premise before. Keep in mind that this was released in 1956, and while not being the first of this genre, it is a very early book in that catalogue.

For fans of The Tripods coming to this novel (much like myself) – the two books are so incredibly different, I’m not certain there would be a guaranteed familiarity with the style. One motif that did carry over from this to Tripods was the aspect of the protagonists not necessarily being “the good guys” at all times. Christopher is great at exploring moral ambiguity, and as such his characters are far more realistic than your run of the mill Mary Sue main characters that you see in many books. The Death of Grass is a classic of science fiction, and despite its flaws, I quite enjoyed my time with it.

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