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The Death of Grass - John Christopher

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Genre: Sci-Fi / Fantasy / Author: John Christopher / Paperback / 208 Pages / Book is published 2009-04-02 by Penguin Classics

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    2 Reviews
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    • More +
      15.01.2014 21:25
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      Dated in attitudes towards women and children, but human nature hasn't changed in 50+ years.

      The Death of the Grass is apocalyptic fiction from another era. It predates the nuclear war scenarios, which would soon become popular, and of course the modern day post apocalyptic scourge - zombies. This is a story of plague, and as devastating as human plagues may be, none are as horrific as this. This plague has a 100% kill rate, but it's victims are plants, specifically all members of the grass family. This mightn't sound so bad at first, but think wheat, rye, barley, rice and corn are all grasses. Grasses account for 20% of the vegetation on the planet. In one fail swoop every cereal crop is destroyed, along with all grazing. This is an extinction event to make the end of the dinosaurs look like a picnic. The worst of it is, a plague cannot be fought, starvation can. As long as anyone has food the motivation to take it - no matter what it takes to get it and if worse comes to worse, other humans can become food themselves, at least once the famine has lasted long enough. This is not a case of man working his own destruction as in the post nuclear war apocalypse books. In this case the end of life as we know it is brought about by a random whim of nature, an unknown disease, but man's folly will certainly add to the death toll, both through action and lack of action.

      Chung- Li as the virus is known first rears its ugly head in China. The world watches as China crumbles, followed by all of the countries around it. Some aid is sent and people express sympathy before going on with their everyday lives. Some are so crude as to state that the "Chinkies" will soon bread another 200,000 after this number is announced as the first death toll But China does not recover, and all of Asia is soon written off. As the plague continues to spread scientists around the world begin work on the disease, but rather than cause a panic, or be accused of being responsible for a reduction of wheat production if a cure is found, so no effort is made to diversify crops or plant grazing areas in alfalfa or other legumes. People remain convinced Britain would never fall into the anarchy and cannibalism that has overtaken China. After all, British are stoic, sensible and responsible - quite capable of keeping a stiff upper lip while tightening the belt. The British stay calm and carry on. They are not like those ignorant savages in Asia. But Britain is about. But the British are about to find out that any man ( or woman) can become a savage.

      John Custance has more warning than most. His best friend and former comrade in arms, Roger Buckley during the war is now a high ranking civil servant, or spin doctor with inside information. His brother, a farmer is convinced a catastrophe is on the way as well and replants all of his land in potatoes and beets. He begs John and his family to leave London and stay on the family farm, but John is not willing to give up his job, or remove the children from their upper class boarding schools. The Buckley family is soundly criticised for being so overly attached to their child that they refused to send him away to school. The
      Custance family seems to have their heads in the sand, but so does most of the country. Buckley on the other hand recognises the urgency, but has nowhere to go except for the promise of shelter at the Custance family farm in exchange for a last minute warning - but will the warning come too late?

      The majority of this book takes place over the span of days. Britain goes from tea and crumpets to a brutality that would make the dark ages look tame within hours of the governments attempt to prevent freedom of movement, keeping the city dwellers in the cities - where no more food will come. The two families will face a treacherous journey through hostile country to reach safety. In the space of days they will all see just what they are capable of - what they are willing to do to survive - and whom they are willing to sacrifice.

      The character development of the main characters is brilliant. We see them transform very respectable upper class gentleman who worry with their children will attend Oxford or Eton, to savages, capable of anything, but some core of humanity remains. The women are not quite as well developed. Buckley;s wife remains very much the good wife and mother, we have the token slut as well, but only Anne Cussack is fleshed out at all, and even there something is missing. The men are the real movers in the story ,and I feel the author has underestimated women, but then this book was written in the 50's, and the idea of women as weaker dependent creatures was more prevalent. The children are less realistic, but play relatively minor roles. I can forgive his lack of insight into women and children because of incredible insight into the nature of men - and whether he knew it or not, the nature of women and children is not so very different.

      I would note that this book has rape, violence, and child abuse. Non of these are described graphically at all. The author does realise which things are best left to the imagination. The rapes are described only in the aftermath, and in very limited detail. The author does present a callousness towards rape - and the obvious opinion of the time that it wouldn't be so bad for a less than decent woman, but thankfully he leaves the details out. The details of killing and death are also limited and focus on things such as the youth of one of the dead rather than the gory details of how is life ended. The fear in this book is very much psychological. There is the very real fear of death for the characters, but also the fear of surviving, but only as a very different human being.

      The only reason this review has 5 stars it is a truly brilliant book despite the horrible intro and the stereotypical women. This is nothing like 'Alas Babylon' or 'The Day of The Triffid' in which the heroes remain true to the better aspects of human nature. This is a book in which everyone sinks to horrific actions, and for that it is probably more realistic. It is terrifying because it is so bone chillingly believable, even if a plague in which 100% of the grasses are killed seems unlikely. The introduction tries to give as wee scare with Ug99, a variety of wheat rust which could easily lead to widespread famine, and can in some conditions destroy 100% of non resistant wheat, but there are resistant varieties and it does not affect other grasses. But should famine on this scale from any source ever hit Britain, I expect the results would be very similar to those depicted in the book.

      I liked this book because it encourages serious thought. I can recall at university once a student asked why more Germans didn't just stand up and say the Nazis were wrong. The teacher asked everyone in the class who would have publically denounced the Nazis after Hitler came to power to stand. Only tow of us remained seated. Everyone else would have stood up publically and denounced the Nazis. But I'm a realist, I know how low humanity can sink. My answer was that it would depend on whether or not I had children. If I didn't have children, I'd like to think I would have done what I could, helped the resistance etc.. I most certainly would not have just stood up and asked to be sent to Dachau or someplace similar. I am not one to die just to make a point. The one other student to remain seated said he would have fled the country and joined another countries military. I'm not so sure any accepted German recruits though fresh from the Fatherland. But if I had children - I would keep my head down, try to pretend that things were not really so bad, and keep my own children safe at all cost. I got some stick for being a Nazi until the professor intervened. But in fact, what I would have done exactly what most Germans did. Kept my head down and tried to protect my own children, no matter how much we would like to think we would be heroes. Most of would fight for own children's survival, no matter what the cost, to ourselves or to others. Nearly everyone of us has the potential to become a savage. And those that don't would die very quickly.

      We all like to think we would remain civilised - that we would do things differently. This allows us to judge others who do not live up to our standards - but would we really be heroes? This book will leave you wondering just how far you would descend.

      I very nearly rated this book 3 stars, despite the fact that is an excellent example of classic sci -fi post apocalyptic fiction. The reason for this is the introduction, surprisingly written by a well known author, is a plot summary which spoils most of the major events. The writer takes you right through the whole book leaving only the exact ending out - but while he says he won't reveal the ending of the book - he does just that. True he doesn't give every tiny detail, but he does let us know exactly how the book will end. Thankfully I quit reading after the first major spoiler. If I hadn't - there really wouldn't have been much point in reading the book. The review does have some interesting material. I especially liked the writer's comparison to Lord of the Flies, which I feel is very apt, but wait until you have finished the book, then go back and read it. Had the preface been a dooyoo review - I would have given in a Not Useful, asked the writer to put spoiler alert in capital letters or remove the spoilers, and if that failed reported it to dooyoo. The publisher who allowed it to be printed should be sacked. But the fellow has guaranteed one thing - his own book had been on my wish list. As he can't understand the concept of letting a reader find things out for themselves - I removed it.

      I do recommend this book highly, but only if you do not read the introduction until you have finished the book. Five stars for the book - no stars for the introduction.

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      • More +
        09.04.2010 09:49
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        A society in its death throes - but how would we cope?

        Ah, another day, another apocalypse. Although according to the Financial Times, that well known literary reviewer, this, 'of all fiction's apocalypses...is one of the most haunting'. Billed as 'a chilling psychological thriller' and 'one of greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written', this "modern classic" (for my reservations about this term, see my review of 'Cat's Eye' - although in fairness this novel has a good 60 years under its belt) certainly had a lot to live up to. I am often drawn towards this type of exploratory what-if fiction, so I was initially ready to be impressed, even though I'd never heard of the book or its author until the book group meeting where it was introduced. Or at least, I thought I hadn't. A bit of research revealed that John Christopher (a pseudonym for Sam Youd) was also author of 'the Guardians', a thoroughly unmemorable book that I'm sure I studied at school and never cared for. The synopsis of that has echoes of this book: a community split into competing factions; life and death struggle; hard moral choices. The fact that the earlier book, which sounded similar in terms of its action and themes, had made so little impression on me meant that I put off reading this one for a few weeks, but once I was a couple of chapters in I was gripped by the plot's potential. Could it last?

        == The premise ==

        While Asia is devastated by a new virus which preys on rice grass, Europe, and England in particular, looks on smugly: the British would never riot over food; they would never allow the situation to get so out of control. They know how to form an orderly queue. As horrifying images of starvation and rioting are flashed around newspapers and then, perhaps even more disturbingly, hidden from view, one English family in particular discuss the morality of the new policy of withholding grain stores from the starving continent 'in case' the virus begins to attack Europe. As months pass, the virus mutates and begins a slow but unstoppable wave of destruction until - suddenly - it becomes clear that the British government has been lying to its people. They have no cure, and no more food. Instead, there are horrifying contingency plans in place to help selected communities survive the disaster. As society begins to disintegrate into shocking barbarism, John Custance and his family begin to journey towards a place that promises safety: the family farm, which is held by John's brother David and protected by its sheltered position in a valley. As civilised society evaporates, the Custance's find their moral standards have to change rapidly to accommodate new dangers. Can they make it to their brother's farm? If they do, what kind of people will they have become?

        I found the premise intriguing, especially as it promised to approach the collapse of democratic/civilised society from a very specific viewpoint, although I do wonder how intentional that was on the writer's part. John and Ann Custance are firmly upper middle class. Their children are at boy and girl only boarding schools (of course) and they are able to discuss the misery and savagery being experienced in Asia in a pitying yet slightly contemptuous manner, having never really experienced any difficulties of their own. However guilty Ann feels at their collective ability to forget other people's suffering, the men are adamant that this is necessary. Of course, the reader can easily anticipate that this attitude may yet return to haunt them as the crops in Europe deteriorate, but it is difficult to reject their conclusions, however callous one might feel they are. I was anticipating a dramatic tale but one which would present difficult moral questions to think over.

        == The prologue ==

        A family argument is healed and a decision made regarding land ownership. A child surveys a valley and their sibling nearly drowns in a fast flowing river. The prologue is a short chapter which is easy to read, although it feels rather insignificant at the time. There are no obvious signs that the writer is 'setting up' any strands for later on, but the events in this chapter are at the heart of events in the final two chapters, which I did feel was skilful without being show-offy on the writer's part. The events depicted within the prologue occur twenty five years before the main action and can be enjoyed as a pastoral interlude. It is this idyll which John and his family will desperately seek to reach later on, and the opening scene does it justice by sketching a place of comfort and safety with an underlying danger. This is peaceful to read, and although it didn't exactly grip my attention, it is a nice slow burning start to what is quite a slow burning book.

        == The plot and characters ==

        Initially the pace is rather slow as we are introduced to the main characters through their dialogue, which mostly concerns the disintegration of society in Asia and the moral responsibilities of the European and American governments. Gradually, there are hints that all is not well in England either, but the novel journeys fairly prosaically over a good fourteen month period first. This sounds dull but I was actually quite interested at this point as I listened to the characters pontificating and began to anticipate how they might react in the upcoming turmoil. It was evident that Britain was going to suffer from the mutating virus from the blurb on the back of the book, but it takes a good few chapters and forty odd pages before disaster strikes. This section of the book was a pleasant, engaging read. The lurking danger was nicely clear without being over emphasised by dramatic foreshadowing or symbolism. Then, the ending of the fourth chapter makes it clear that trouble is ahead:

        "Yet again...it falls to the British people to set an example to the world in the staunch and steadfast bearing of their misfortunes. Things may grow darker yet, but that patience and fortitude is something we know will not fail."

        Oh dear. Pride cometh before a fall...and what a mighty fall this writer to the Daily Telegraph sets up for the British people. The surprise in this section of the story was how quickly characters adapted to lawless Britain, but more of that in a moment. I felt that this was where the story began to lose its way. I found that after the gently building tension of the opening chapters, the news of the government's intended solution seemed absurd, and terrible events piled up rapidly as society rather disappeared than disintegrated. I was unable to believe fully in the events that happened or in the characters responses to them. I believed in their increasing desperation to reach the farm, which assumed an almost mythical status in the book, but I found the increasing hardship and brutality almost unfathomable.

        Christopher suggests that society is really a rather tenuous notion and civility a thin veneer glossed over essential human selfishness. He shows how readily people adapt to a kill or be killed mentality and revert to a hierarchy built on violence and respect rather than democracy. As the novel progresses, the farm becomes a symbol of civilisation and the current behaviour of the characters is rationalised and excused, but also rather set aside: it is irrelevant, as they will be able to return to their true, civilised selves once they have reached the safety and security of the land David has promised to hold for them. In fact, Christopher shows that they adapt shockingly fast to their circumstances and I wondered, as John's wife Ann queries, whether or not they could really revert to their old selves if they reached their sanctuary.

        In a way then, this is a powerful novel, depicting the collapse of civilisation and showing how the threads that bind us to each other can be snapped, even disregarded (this is especially true at the novel's shocking conclusion). However, I found it too difficult to believe in. The characters never seem to cry or to struggle with the choices they have to make. They rationalise, shoot and move on. In particular, Jane, a young girl who becomes conscripted into the group after a particularly meaningless piece of violence, responds in dutiful silence to those she surely ought to kill out of fury. I felt that these characters lacked humanity; they fought to live, but they did not care about death, even when it should have affected them.

        == A novel bound by its context ==

        The only justification I can find for this is that the novel is set shortly after the Second World War and most of the male characters make explicit reference to fighting in that. I would imagine that shooting people in war could well dehumanise you and make shooting civilians more plausible. I wonder whether this novel has aged poorly. I would argue that modern warfare has little impact on the vast proportion of British people; we are insulated from the terror that previous wars caused us as we are essentially taking sides in other countries' civil wars, rather than being at war with other stable entities. Unless you know a soldier fighting in one of these conflicts, it is all a rather distant affair. These characters, familiar with the warning sirens and with senseless deaths, inhabit a different world which I cannot claim to judge fairly. However, I still feel that other modern readers may instinctively feel as I have done, that these characters are too cold, too unfeeling, to be convincing. If this is the case, the novel unquestionably loses some of its impact and power.

        Another historical issue is the treatment of women and children within the story. They are simply chattels; objects to be protected - or used as desired by their male protectors. One woman, who tries to break free from sexual norms, (perhaps a reasonable expectation, given that social norms have been decimated,) is killed by her husband, who explicitly claims his right over her. The leader of the group reflects that the man is worth ten of any woman, as he is a sharp shooter with a perceptive mind. He gives the cuckold his rights and later reflects without concern that perhaps he might have been able to save the woman. Ann rightly states that the men treat women like creatures. Although I appreciate that children and women may be a burden in a wartime setting, especially young children, I do not accept that they have to be. Again, though, I feel that this is largely a historical issue. The children are never really heard from; they are always off 'playing', even one girl who suffers a brutal assault. Their voices are not heard. Although this does not detract from the quality of the story telling, I felt the sidelining of women and children endorsed traditional negative stereotypes and reinforced the notion that women are overly emotional and unreliable. It is true that Ann is perhaps the more perceptive of the main characters, though; she identifies and articulates the changes in John almost before he is aware of them himself. However, this does not really affect the overall depiction of women as burdens.

        A more modern concern is evident in the cause of the disease afflicting the grass. Although this is never more than touched upon by the various characters, it is clear that the catastrophic growth of the virus is in some way caused by man's lack of respect for nature and tendency to expose it to unnatural chemicals. Man's arrogance, assuming that he can fix the problem long before it can kill him, is also exposed through the behaviour of the governments. Furthermore, the West's smug conviction of its superiority is condemned and shown to be a fallacy, for Britain does collapse, and it is clear that the catastrophe will be complete and global. Despite these targets of criticism, the novel never feels didactic or strident. The message is implicit rather than shouted at you, which I feel makes it more powerful, creeping into your consciousness. These are still highly topical concerns, perhaps even more so today than in the 50s when this book was published. It is simultaneously appalling, fascinating and humbling to read about the unfolding crisis.

        It also begs the question of how well we would cope today. These characters grow potatoes and salt the last of the beef to keep it. They are able to live off the earth of the land, should it allow them to do so, in a way that I imagine few people in modern Britain could do, although I believe that growing your own is experiencing something of a revival. I did find it fascinating and oddly frightening as symbols of safety and society crumbled: no news channels, no homes, no cars. The matter of fact manner in which these losses are assimilated by the characters made it somehow scarier; these items are not simply lost, they become irretrievable, impossible. There is no question of safety within your own home. Even the shimmering prospect of safety at the farm seemed a false prospect to me: a valley might be defensible, but it is not a retreat from the dying hordes of desperate humanity. In this sense then, the book is compelling, as I think that apocalyptic fantasies inevitably are, playing as they do on humanity's deepest fears.

        == The epilogue ==

        After the dramatic conclusion of the second to last chapter, the calmness of the final chapter and some other aspects make it feel like an epilogue, although it is not explicitly called this by the author. This chapter neatly links back to the opening scenes and allows the reader to envisage what is likely to happen in the future, without explicitly stating it. I felt that this was a very effective ending on the whole, although it took me a few moments to work out what had happened. This is presumably meant to intensify the shock of the realisation, which I suppose it did do, but I also found it slightly confusing that an important event was hinted at rather than simply stated. The final chapter is a very fitting conclusion and helps to emphasise the themes Christopher is concerned about: the essential nature of man and co-operative society. I did feel that the story was suitably 'rounded of'. As befits an apocalyptic ending, it is a sad and troubling ending, with the scope for further death and distress inbuilt. This is not a criticism; in fact, the novel's consistently bleak vision helps to give it a certain strength and there is a definite sense of closure created through the events in the plot and the character's actions.

        == The introduction ==

        I'm discussing this at the end of my review because most readers will want to read this after they have read the story, if at all. As is typical in introductions to 'classic' works, it does contain plot spoilers, (although it does not reveal the ending,) so I would advise waiting until you have finished reading the book if you wish to experience the twists and turns of the plot.

        Robert Macfarlane's up to date introduction discusses the context of the novel when it was originally published and now. This is interesting to read and informative. If you especially enjoy reading apocalyptic fiction based on plant life (!) then there are even some reading suggestions to be found. I was amused by the account of the novel's recent surge in popularity and am glad I was able to borrow mine from my local library, rather than having to fork over the amount of pounds demanded in the retail market!

        The opening section of the introduction is also a little disturbing, as I assume it is intended to be, as the critic draws worrying links between Christopher's vision of viral destruction and the evolution of Ug99. Apparently it poses 'an unprecedented international threat to wheat and barley' (US Agricultural Research Service) and there is presently no reason to think that its spread is containable. I dare you to read this story and not find those facts rather chilling. Of course, inundated as we are by multiple potential threats to the future of human existence, most of which seem to come to nothing (see: SARS, Avian flu, Swine flu etc.), it may be easy to detach ourselves from any sense of fear. Perhaps too easy - although it would hardly be productive to exist in a state of nervous anticipation.

        == Conclusions ==

        When I originally finished reading this I was slightly disappointed and underwhelmed. I felt that the narrative structure was sound, the message chilling and man's inhumanity to man frightening, but the rapid development of the situation and coldness of the characters reduced its ultimate impact on me. Upon reflection, however, I feel that this is a powerful novel as it has stayed with me - at least for the past few days! The violence is never described in detail, so there are no gory passages, nor is it graphic, but it the novel is still very dark due to the cold brutality of the characters. Shootings are committed with forethought, execution style, and the casual nature of the act elevates it to an inhuman kind of cruelty. Although it is rather bound by its context, the overall text somehow transcends that to create a memorable and rather scary depiction of a disintegrating society. Recommended.

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