The Death of Grass by John Christopher. Review.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

Penguin, PB,

Reviewed by Martin Willoughby

Written in the 1950s, this book is more relevant today than it’s ever been. The title tells you the theme of the story: Earth’s grass is dying out. All types. Not just the green stuff we see, but rice, wheat, barley: the lot. What follows is the end of all civilisation on the planet.

John Custance has an ordinary middle class job in an ordinary middle class world. His friend Roger works for the Ministry of Defence. Both served in the war and were happy to survive and have almost readjusted to civilian life.

One day, they hear on the news of a viral outbreak in China that is killing off the rice. China doesn’t tell anyone until it’s too late and 200 million are dead.

This is where the book takes a non-standard view of the world. At the time, those in authority saw Asiatics as less organised than the West, and this point comes out in the book very well. Christopher, on the other hand, shows through the characters that the west may not be as organised as we think. the casual racism of the time is laid bare.

The viral outbreak is contained, or so they think, and everyone goes back to their normal lives without sparing a thought for the dead Chinese.

In the background, as Roger is becoming aware, things are not as straightforward as they seem. There are whispers about anti-virals that have killed the majority of the Chung-Li strains, but more strains are coming through. And they pose a threat to the west. They are airborne and root-born and are more dangerous.

It’s not long before the grasses in Western Europe are affected and die off. Famine is a real possibility. The major grain growing nations, such as Australia and the USA, hold on to theirs instead of selling it, so Britain is cut off from it’s Dominions, its Empire, and its friends. It has to grow its own food or starve. And there isn’t enough, even if everyone grew potatoes and beets.

John, Roger, their families and a gun seller leave London. Roger has heard that the government plan to prevent everyone leaving the major cities then bomb them with atomic weapons to reduce the population and ensure the nation’s survival.

Britain descends into chaos and violence, just like the Asiatics. One of the last radio broadcasts they hear on the journey north is the US president stating that the USA is safe and that they will one day recolonise planet Earth.

Fans of dystopian novels will know what happens next. The groups grows as it travels North to take refuge at the farm of John’s Brother, a place called Blind Gill in Westmoreland. Some of the subject matter is surprising in a book of this time, as John has to deal with the rape of his wife and teenage daughter. He wants to, but his wife does the killing it instead.

The gory details may be sparse, while the sex is alluded to, but the situation is described in its horror.

In short, it’s a story about how people change according to circumstances and was a reality check for those who still considered the West a bastion of good sense. It rips apart the notion of ‘can’t happen here’ and shows that not only could it, but people will react badly when it does, with the author drawing on his recent experience of the war. One only has to look at the things people do to survive in the slum areas of Britain to understand how rapidly we could change.

At less that 200 pages this is not a long read, but it is a disturbing one, written by an author who was well known in his time, but has been mostly forgotten now.

You can find out more about the man who wrote Tripods at wikipedia.