The Death of Grass

There's nothing like a good bit of apocalyptic fiction for cheering you up, and it doesn't come much better (or gloomier) than John Christopher's The death of grass. I think that the best apocalyptic fiction, the stuff that's truly frightening is the fiction that could too easily become fact. In John Wyndham's The day of the triffids, I was never particularly scared by the triffids, walking plants don't seem too likely, but the blindness caused by a satellite warhead that went wrong did have an eerie type of plausibility about it in the middle of the Cold War, similarly in The kraken wakes I was less worried by sea monsters, than by rising sea levels. John Christopher's book has an uneasy feel to it of a potential disaster waiting to happen.

Set in 1950's England, when Christopher wrote it, the world is about to face massive changes. A little reported disease breaks out in the paddy fields of Asia. While rioting sweeps across the Far East, the West is able to comfort itself that this is just a problem among orientals, who are over-reacting as usual (such were the attitudes of the day - and having watched a BBC documentary (part one of All watched over by machines of loving grace) recently which was partly about banking crises in the Far East and how the West responded to them, I suspect that attitudes have not changed as much as some of us in the West would like to believe they have). However when the crop virus mutates and begins to affect all species of grass from rice to wheat and barley, society in the West rapidly begins to break down too.

Caught up in this are John Custance and his family trying to get away from London and up to Westmoreland where his brother is a potato farmer. As society collapses around him, Custance's own thin veneer of morality will soon be swept away, as he risks everything to save his family.

This is a bleak, bleak read. And would probably be an excellent novel for a book group to discuss, as it would provoke a lot of discussion. I found myself throughout the book siding with different characters, and it's a really thought-provoking "how would I react in that situation" type read. It's a great introduction to apocalyptic fiction, but be prepared to be depressed, it doesn't leave you with a great deal of faith in mankind.


John said…
I've just finished reading The Death of Grass. I enjoyed the book, but I often found myself siding against John Custance. I think I would've shot Pirrie myself!

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