John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass (also known as The Death of Grass) is one of those books which has haunted me, and I’m going to have to find another copy just so I can finally read it again. I read and adored Christopher’s Tripods books as a boy, and was eager to finally read one of his well-loved books for adults. Christopher (pen name of author Samuel Youd) wrote many books for younger readers (early teens, essentially), but this is certainly not one of them.
There is something in the dystopia, in the vision of a land from which millions upon millions have vanished, leaving only a few survivors, which appealed to me even when I was young. Perhaps it was the effect of growing up in a city, but spending my summers in the country – I can only imagine. Knowing this, and knowing vaguely the subject of No Blade of Grass, I was still not prepared for how brilliant – and how terrible – this book would be. With none of the usual mechanisms of science fiction – not even a zombie, nor a Triffid (in tone, No Blade of Grass does bear more than a passing resemblance to John Wyndham’s classic book) – John Christopher shows why sometimes, all it takes to build a terrifying future is just a little imagination. Sometimes, it only requires a tiny virus which acts on certain select plants.
Quickly, precisely, and brutally, Christopher recounts the events of a future-present in which a virus appears in China and runs amok through the rice crops, causing starvation, dehumanisation, and the deaths of millions from the sudden and savage barbarism which breaks out. An anti-viral agent is found, and the West breathes easy, but the reprieve is short-lived. The Chung-Li virus has many different phases, and the most recent strain which has emerged does not merely attack rice, but all strains of grasses. The practical upshot is starvation: without grass, there is no wheat, no barley, no rice, no oats – and therefore no livestock, bar pigs (which, it is mentioned in passing, can thrive on almost anything). As the virus spreads and foodstocks dwindle, brothers John and David Custance plan to retreat to the family farm in the north of England, where David is certain that he can fortify the valley and make it a refuge for his immediate family.
When the balloon goes up, John Custance’s friend, Roger Buckley, a civil servant with his ear to the ground, gives them advance notice, and, in the company of Pirrie, a gun merchant, and their families, the three groups flee London with mere hours to spare, as the metropolis is one of the many cities slated by the government for destruction – via nuclear weapons – rather than to allow the wholesale degradation and misery that might follow on from slow starvation. That a government would take such a decision, even under the mantle of fiction, is one of the more shocking moments of the book.
What follows is a nightmare tour through the heart of England, against the backdrop of famine, murder, rape, uxoricide, and a desperate race for survival. As familiar towns are imagined to have fallen, either to the threatened nuclear attack by the RAF or by looting and pillaging of a populace quickly rendered desperate, the group struggles toward what they imagine is a safe haven. What will they ultimately find?
I must again discourage younger fans of Christopher: this is not a book for the under-12 crowd. It is a quick, compelling read, and the template for anyone who wants to write – or read – quintessential post-apocalyptic fiction. A 2009 UK Penguin reprint has ensured that it is an easier book to locate, but there are multiple editions from which to choose in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. No Blade of Grass also serves as a cautionary tale written before the advent of genetic engineering, although it is hard to imagine anything going so hideously wrong in the real world (but, then again…). Of course, we don’t need to imagine it: Christopher has already done the work for us. It is better that way, of course: such things should be kept in the world of fiction, to make us wary of the possibilities of reality.
Originally reviewed 20 June 2011.
Find your copy of No Blade of Grass available from booksellers around the world at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).