Monday, May 7, 2012

No Blade of Grass by John Christopher

As sometimes happens, death 
healed a family breach.
Opening to
No Blade of Grass
by John Christopher
There world has been coming to an end since 1956.

There has been an explosion of dystopian futures of late.  If you wandered around any Scholastic Book Faire this year, you saw that just about one out of ever four titles in the fiction section featured some kind of horrific future.

It's oddly comforting to realize that this is really nothing new.

The end of the world is an old trope in science fiction; it was nothing new even in 1956 when John Christopher wrote his novel No Blade of Grass (called The Death of Grass in the United Kingdom.)

No Blade of Grass disturbs as it entertains.  Even the premise is disturbing.--we don't need something drastic or complicated to bring about the end of the world, all we need is a naturally occurring virus that kills something as simple and basic as grass.  There is no complex scientific experiment gone wrong nor a rouge government bent of world conquest nor any sort of re-animated dead.  Just a virus.  Just grass.

But grass includes rice, wheat, hay, oats.  Take grass away and the world quickly starves to death.

While John Christopher's novels take place against a backdrop of cataclysmic world events they are all focused on people.  In the case of No Blade of Grass, Mr. Christopher tells the story of David and John, two brothers.  David inherits the family farm, located in an idyllic valley far removed from urban London where John lives with his wife and two children and works as an engineer designing large construction projects.  The two couldn't be more different.

When word of the virus attacking the rice crop in China comes, David asks John to move his family to the farm.  David, who has no children, has come to love his niece and nephew as his own and fears for what will happen to them once the virus spreads enough to reach the British Isles.  John insists that someone will find a way to stop the virus, and stays in the city.  The virus spreads, of course, and when a colleague of John's learns that the government plans to destroy the urban centers as a way of reducing the population enough to leave only those who can be fed, John leads his family and a small group of friends out of London and across England to David's farm where they all hope to be safe.

Very quickly John and the members of his group realize that if they are to survive, they will have to resort to extreme means.  They quickly sink into what can only be labelled as barbarism. In one scene they come across an isolated farmhouse where they hope to find food and shelter.  Almost as soon as the farmer opens his door in response to their knock, John shoots him dead.  They enter the house to find his wife screaming in terror and shoot her as well.  When they later find the couple's young daughter hiding in her upstairs bedroom it is only the intervention of John's horrified wife that forces him to offer the girl a chance to join their group.

This is not how I expected the hero of the story to behave, but it is completely believable.  Contrast this with the noble father of Cormac McCarthy's The Road who tries to protect his son and to set an example of goodness for him amidst the fallen world they live in.  Mr. Christopher's hero wants his children to understand that they will all have to do horrible things if they are to survive.  His portrayal of how these characters quickly become barbaric is disturbing and believable.  Which made it even more disturbing.

It's not easy to find a copy of No Blade of Grass in the United States these days, in spite of the recent explosion of end of the world fiction, but it is well worth the effort.


Jeane said...

Sounds like one I might find interesting. Characters who make disturbing decisions often seem more real to me than those who always do what's right or act nobly.

C.B. James said...

Everything they did in this book felt real, right up to the very end. What they did upset me, as a reader, and it's not what I hope I would do in their shoes, but I believed it all.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

One of the oddest things, reading reviews of The Road when it came out, was all of the reviewers who seemed to think that McCarthy had invented the genre, or who did that know that "post-apocalyptic" even was a genre, and a pretty old and well-developed one.

Back when I read more scifi I was amazed to discover how many of the classics and semi-classics of the 50s and 60s were post-apocalyptic.

The thing about your post that is bothering me is that I cannot remember if I have read this book or not. It would have been a long time ago. You certainly describe it vividly enough.

C.B. James said...

Tom, Maybe you'll have to re-read it. As far as I know the genre goes back to the very beginnings of science fiction. There's an interesting book called After London, I think, from the late 19th century that describes a world after the unexplained collapse of the cities.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

After London, a four part series! (In reverse order).

C.B. James said...

Of course. That's where I heard of it. I did listen to the first half or so on audio last year. It's an interesting book.

Jackie Bailey said...

I'm so pleased that you read and enjoyed this one. Part of me worried that it might contain too many English references to be really loved outside the UK. I found it especially creepy as John travelled through so many towns I know well - including the tiny village that my sister lives in. It is scary to think how possible this book is and how fragile our society.

C.B. James said...

Jackie, While I believed the action of the book, I'm not sure society would collapse so quickly. My own experience, having been though a couple of major earthquakes in my time, makes me think that people would come together and cooperate at least at first. In any case, it was a terrific book.