The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956) 195 p.

I first read this novel in high school, after greatly enjoying the Tripods trilogy (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire) for which John Christopher is more well-known. Those books were aimed at young adults, and I recalled The Death of Grass as being surprisingly more serious and cold-blooded in dealing with the downfall of human civilisation.

The Death of Grass is a classic post-apocalyptic novel, written in the 1950s, the golden age of British post-apocalyptic fiction. In this case the end of the world as we know it is brought about by the Chung-Li virus, a disease originating in China which kills off all grass species – including, unfortunately for humans, wheat, barley and rye. First China falls to famine, and then it spreads to India and South-East Asia and the Soviet Union, and before long the grass is dying out in Britain and rationing is introduced in a desperate measure to stave off starvation. As England descends into anarchy, the protagonist and his friends and family must fight their way north to Cumbria, where his brother has a potato farm in an easily defended valley.

What sets The Death of Grass aside from other post-apocalyptic novels of the time – notably John Wyndham’s nonetheless excellent bibliography – is the sheer level of realistic brutality the characters are forced to lower themselves to. Like all novels of the genre, The Death of Grass‘ overriding theme is that civilisation is a thin veneer that will be peeled away as soon as the electricity goes out and the tap water runs dry, and there are many conversations (and actions) to this effect. The protagonist and his friends are forced to kill, and not just in self-defence, and in the closing stages of the novel – a mere few days after they have fled London – he realises that he is becoming something akin to a feudal chieftan, with a roving band of armed killers. Men like this are a staple of post-apocalyptic fiction – whether they are the bikers of Mad Max, or the armed survivalists of The Road, or even the miscellaneous bandits and marauders of my own serialised novel End Times – but they are always the bad guys, never the protagonists. Note that I didn’t use the word “heroes;” in Christopher’s world, there are no heroes, just the dead and the living. These generic bad guys always kill to take things – weapons, food, vehicles – and from our vantage point in the real world we consider this the wrong thing to do. We never consider that scavenging and trading might not be enough. We never consider that, in order to survive, we might very well have to kill and take. If you’d prefer to die than do that, you will – count on it.

The Death of Grass is one of the most unflinching accounts of an apocalyptic event that I’ve ever read, and is required reading for any fan of the genre. It’s also, incidentally, the first book that I’ve re-read in more than two and a half years, because I’m in Mongolia at the moment and reading material is limited. Once I reach London I’ve a good mind to go over and read some favourites from the past – the entire Discworld series, for a start, plus all of Philip Reeve’s books. Now I’m adding all of Christopher’s works to the list (although the only ones I’ve read are the Tripods books) and, for that matter, all of Wyndham’s.