Written in 1956, it still feels very fresh – especially with the news recently full of the horrendous flooding in the Somerset Levels (and the inefficiency of the government to deal with it) and the emergence of looters and petrol thieves. (It’s also interesting to note John Christopher lived in Somerset.)
John Christopher (one of the writing names of Sam Youd) has a cult following when really he should be much better known in the mainstream because The Death of Grass (later filmed as No Blade of Grass) is a story about the social, moral and political breakdown of society when the balance of the natural world is altered. Countries abandon support for other countries, billions of people die of starvation or are murdered or, the brainchild of the fictional UK government, are sacrificed. It reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s books and HG Well’s War of the Worlds.
A virus (Chun-Li) has developed in China and has wiped out all the rice. Food parcels are shipped to Asia at the beginning of the book but it doesn’t stop the slaughter and cannibalism that ensues (we get this in the first chapter so this isn’t a spoiler). The rest of the world looks on with a smug and openly racist smile on its global face: “There’s an awful lot of Chinks in China. They’ll breed ‘em back up again” says one character. But rice is a form of grass, oryza sativa, and so is wheat and barley, bamboo and pasture grasses and many other cereal crops – there are 11,000 different types of grass. And viruses mutate and evolve quicker than most of us can sneeze.
Many viruses have a built in lifespan (like common colds) and die down quickly after a range of phases. Not Chun-Li. This virus continues to evolve (and is aided by the counter-viruses thrown at it). When it evolves to attack the other grass-types the implications are far-reaching. Imagine a world without cows, deer, goats, rabbits – any of the grazers and browsers. No butter. No bread. No milk. No leather. No meat. I can’t help but make comparisons with what might happen if the bees die out through varroa and colony collapse.
The meat of this book isn’t what happens to the grass but what effect its total obliteration has on the people in the book. The story lays down a foundation biblical in its essence right from the word go – but you don’t realize it until close to the end, because it’s so contemporary in its telling. Over three days or so you watch likeable characters turn into Conrad-esque nightmares and arses turn into humane, if a bit spineless, human beings. The treatment of the women – strongly written characters – is horrendous and they’re reduced unnaturally quickly to chattels. And there’s one main character I wish I’d never met.
I can’t say much more without giving out any serious spoilers but something Roger, one of the main characters, says in chapter two keeps buzzing between my ears:
‘The thing all you adult, sensitive people must bear in mind is that things are on your side at present – you live in a world where everything’s in favour of being sensitive and civilized. But it’s a precarious business.’
Well that’s me – I’m adult and sensitive and civilized and I would truly hate to think what would happen to me as a person if anything drastic caused that to change. And Roger’s right, it is a precarious business – even without Chun-Li.