It’s a depressing sack of sadness that this exceptional post-apocalyptic story is not more widely read… I’m going to try and spread some love and hopefully find this wonderful book some more friends with whom to spend the holidays.
The Death of Grass (published in the United States as No Blade of Grass) is a 1956 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel written by the English author Samuel Youd under the pen name John Christopher. It was the first in a series of post-apocalyptic novels written by him. The novel was written in a matter of weeks and liberated Samuel Youd from his day job. It was retitled No Blade of Grass for the US edition, as supposedly the US publisher thought the original title “sounded like something out of a gardening catalogue”
The central theme of the novel: How delicate and fragile is the veneer of civilization and how quickly the survival instinct can subdue, handcuff and gag the better angels of our nature. Written in the 1950’s, this novel contains one of the starkest depictions I’ve encountered of the rapid breakdown and collapse of societal norms and common decency in the wake of a global catastrophe. It’s portrayal of people struggling to survive in the aftermath of a world-wide calamity is exemplary and worthy of being granted status up with the big boys of the genre like Earth Abides and Alas, Babylon.
A virus originating in China attacks and destroys all grain-based crops. This includes everything from wheat, barley, rye, rice and all forms of grass (hence the appropriate title for this story). Despite the best mostly best efforts of the world’s nations, no viable counter-virus can be produced and it quickly mutates and spreads to blanket the globe. What follow is a brief period (from the story narrative standpoint) of extreme (and often brutal) measures on the part of the fragile governments which include rationing, martial law and, finally, forced population reductions (i.e., mass executions). Eventually, the food scarcity becomes too pronounced and governmental control completes breaks down……this is where the proverbial Cah Cah bangs into the fan and things get serious.
The above all happens within the first 50 pages of the novel and provides the reader with a chance to get to know the main characters, John Custance and his friend Roger Buckley, together with their respective families. We get to see them in “normal” times and then as they witness the fall of civilization which allows us to peg them as good, decent people…just like us. This ability to relate to them makes the events they subsequently endure and, more importantly, their actions and decisions in response to such events, significantly more impactful and emotionally affecting to the reader.
ThoughtsAs mentioned above, the central premise of the story is to how our decency is fragile and quickly becomes burdensome baggage that we unload when faced with extreme circumstances. Put another way, the novel’s heart is showing us how quickly we rationalize losing the ability to use ours. The Death of Grass deeply unsettled me with how plausibly it portrayed this rapid ripping away of the layers of kindness, compassion and empathy from seemingly normal people once day-to-day survival becomes the primary motivator.
John Christopher’s ability to authentically show this brutal and unvarnished view of humanity is what makes this story so effective and sets it apart from other books of its type. Despite the heinous and despicable actions of previously “good” individuals, I never found myself having “that couldn’t happen” thoughts as I read. That is what I found most unnerving.
At one point in the story, our survivors invade a home and kill a mother and father in front of their child in order to steal their food. I was watching these people that I previously related to suddenly thrust into situations where they would do something like that and I was confronted with that horrible hypothetical mirror questioning me saying “What would you do?”
This book left my emotions chapped and longing for something cozy and happy to replenish my parched faith in humanity. I can’t call this a “fun” read, but it is superbly written and a memorable experience. Like mentioned above in the United States the book was published as No Blade of Grass, there is also a movie adaptation under that name.