The 1950s saw an explosion of science fiction and cultural dystopias. In 1951 there was John Wyndham’s ground-breaking novel Day of the Triffids, followed by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. Then there was Quatermass on the television. William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies was also published in 1954.
Then in 1956 The Death of Grass was published. John Christopher was an established author, but this was his breakthrough novel. Readers may recall The Tripods BBC TV series which was made in the mid-70s from a trilogy of books he later wrote for older children. But back to The Death of Grass. It’s not really a science fiction novel, despite the catalyst for all that’s to come being a rather realistic virus that kills grass (compared with the monstrous triffids). It is dystopian though, and survival is the key.
In the beginning we meet two brothers, John and David Custance. David grows up to inherit the family farm in a remote Westmorland valley, John becomes an engineer in London and has a family of his own. John and Ann, and their best friends the Buckleys, Roger and Olivia live a nice life in suburbia with their kids. They fervently believe the virus which is rampaging in Asia will burn itself out or be cured before it reaches them, but governments are planning for the future…
At the beginning of September, the United States House of Representatives passed an amendment to a Presidential bill of food aid, calling for a Plimsoll line for food stocks for home use. A certain minimum tonnage of all foods was to be kept in reserve, to be used inside the United States only.
Ann could not keep her indignation at this to herself.
“Millions facing famine,” she said, “and those fat old men refuse them food.”
They were all having tea on the Buckley’s lawn. The children had retired, with a supply of cakes, into the shrubbery, from which which shrieks and giggles issued at intervals.
And they continue to bicker about the famine in the East…
Roger stared back. “We once agreed about my being a throwback – remember? If I irritate the people around me, don’t forget they may irritate me occasionally. Woolly-mindedness does. I believe in self-preservation, and I’m not prepared to wait until the knife is at my throat before I start fighting. I don’t see the sense in giving the children’s last crust to a starving beggar.”
“Last crust…” Ann looked at the table, covered with the remains of a lavish tea. “Is that what you call this?” …
… Olivia said: “I really think it’s best not to talk about it. It isn’t as though there’s anything we can do about it – we ourselves, anyway. We must just hope things don’t turn out so badly.”
All so nice and cosy, but there are intimations that the men are willing to be heroes if needed, and of course they are to get their chance. Things get much much worse, and they get just a few hours notice to get out of London before it’s sealed. The two families plan to go north to Westmorland, but stop off first at a gun-shop where they meet the owner Pirrie, who’s a good shot. ‘Persuaded’ to take him with them, the rest of the book tells of their journey north. But the army are already manning road-blocks out of London, and it’s amazing how quickly the men transform from well-meaning middle-class blokes into ruthless killers.
They are to encounter many more troubles as they make their way north. Pirrie, (who reminded me of Donald Pleasance in nasty mode), makes himself very useful to the group’s leader John, who finds himself having to make tougher and tougher decisions as they travel and to harden his heart. Ann his wife, remains the group’s conscience.
This immediate transformation of the country into a miriad of small fiefdoms and garrisons, with its accompanying moral disintegration may have happened rather fast, but kept things moving towards the conclusion. John and Roger were ex-Army, so had the discipline to do what they had to do, the women were 1950s housewives, but at least Ann had a mind of her own, despite some rather dated, arch and cheesy dialogue.
This new Penguin classics reissue with the super cover also has a great foreword by Robert MacFarlane, the landscape writer, which puts it into context and surveys the (eco-)dystopian sub-genre. For another excellent review, you can visit John Self’s blog at Asylum.
I was totally won over by this book. It’s our Book Group choice for next month, I’ll report back on what they thought of it later. I feel I may have to revisit the Triffids though. (9/10)