Review: The Death of Grass by John Christopher

“A long time ago. I came to the understanding that all men are friends by convenience and enemies by choice.”
~John Christopher, The Death of Grass

Plot summary

“A post-apocalyptic vision of the world pushed to the brink by famine, John Christopher’s science fiction masterpiece The Death of Grass includes an introduction by Robert MacFarlane in Penguin Modern Classics.

Cover design by John Griffiths for the 1963 edition of The Death of Grass by John Christopher. Photo: jonathan229 (CC BY 2.0)
Cover design by John Griffiths for the 1963 edition of The Death of Grass by John Christopher. Photo: jonathan229 (CC BY 2.0)

At first the virus wiping out grass and crops is of little concern to John Custance. It has decimated Asia, causing mass starvation and riots, but Europe is safe and a counter-virus is expected any day. Except, it turns out, the governments have been lying to their people. When the deadly disease hits Britain, society starts to descend into barbarism. As John and his family try to make it across country to the safety of his brother’s farm in a hidden valley, their humanity is tested to its very limits. A chilling psychological thriller and one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written, The Death of Grass shows people struggling to hold on to their identities as the familiar world disintegrates – and the terrible price they must pay for surviving.” More on Goodreads

On John Christopher

“Sam Youd was born in Lancashire in April 1922, during an unseasonable snowstorm.

As a boy, he was devoted to the newly emergent genre of science-fiction: ‘In the early thirties,’ he later wrote, ‘we knew just enough about the solar system for its possibilities to be a magnet to the imagination.’

Over the following decades, his imagination flowed from science-fiction into general novels, cricket novels, medical novels, gothic romances, detective thrillers, light comedies … In all he published fifty-six novels and a myriad of short stories, under his own name as well as eight different pen-names.

He is perhaps best known as John Christopher, author of the seminal work of speculative fiction, The Death of Grass (today available as a Penguin Classic), and a stream of novels in the genre he pioneered, young adult dystopian fiction, beginning with The Tripods Trilogy.

‘I read somewhere,’ Sam once said, ‘that I have been cited as the greatest serial killer in fictional history, having destroyed civilisation in so many different ways – through famine, freezing, earthquakes, feral youth combined with religious fanaticism, and progeria.’” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Testing social psychology in action
  • In-group vs. out-group
  • Terrorism of the mind when scared
Project 366 #61: 010312 Over Dew. Photo: Pete (Public Domain Mark 1.0)
Project 366 #61: 010312 Over Dew. Photo: Pete (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

“Group polarization occurs when discussion leads a group to adopt attitudes or actions that are more extreme than the initial attitudes or actions of the individual group members. Note that group polarization can happen in the direction of either riskiness (…) or conservativeness.” (psychology.iresearchnet)

Group thinking, in-group vs. out-group bias, group polarization, in-group favoritism etc. – social psychology is a field of many names for group interaction and human social behavior.

Christopher examines the human psyche in The Death of Grass with the intensity of a researcher. It is as if his characters are cast in a role of human testing, just like animals are being tested on various reactions and symptoms when stimulated with drugs, pain etc. The game is on when social norms and structures are removed and the fight for survival and power begins, similarly as in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

As a mind experimentation, the novel offers never-ending speculations about human actions in the times of crisis, conflict and the end of civilization. It also examines the relationship between two brothers and how their interaction changes as the group dynamics and loyalties shift. The novel is a powerful warning sign stating “Do not abandon morality even when faced with dreadful circumstances!” As usual, the interpretation for the novel is free. Maybe the most expressive message is that anyone of us can become an unethical monster – well, I guess there are no ethical monsters to start with – or a tyrant when the social settings change dramatically and favor the abandonment of altruism.

I have mixed feelings about the novel. The novel is not a literary masterpiece. The concept of testing theories of social psychology and the post-apocalyptic setting override the quality of the text. In a prosaic sense, the novel does not convince through style and form. But the message it conveys is strong. So the novel is on my list for reasons not related to literature and its effect on the reader.

In general, there is something compelling about post-apocalyptic theories of society and human future. I guess humans are by nature curious and love to speculate with the future. There is a tendency to perceive the future through misty and anxious lenses that seldom leaves room for optimism and/or a happy outcome. Unfortunately this hardly comes hand in hand with taking better care of the now and actions preventing gloomy outcomes in the first place. I guess that’s what makes a human being: an irrational adventure lasting on average less than 10 decades with a false memory of rationality.

On a different note related to human social psychology, I was laughing out loud the other day when I noticed a poll conducted by TIEDE, a science magazine in Finland. The weekly poll posed the question “Why has there not been contact from outer space?” and there were three options to choose from: 1) They (meaning the extraterrestrials) are or were already here, 2) They exist but have not yet contacted us, and 3) They don’t exist. I’m just thinking, yeah sure, statistically option 2) could be the most feasible choice. But I guess most humans are thinking about intelligent life forms that look pretty much like us and have the required technological means for contact etc. But the poll completely missed one option: There are life forms but they are too far away for feasible contact.

I’m picturing a life form resembling a microbe or something a few galaxies away, hopping on a spacecraft (I know, so plausible…) with the intention of contacting an “intelligent” species on a planet called Earth. I’m just thinking, and I really am trying not to sound too annoyed by this, about the vast distances in space. Isn’t that the most obvious explanation for why there has not been any contact from elsewhere? By the time the very said microbe or whatever gets this far, it has grown arms and legs, only so that the creature can wave and say hi to us, and then be blown to its and pieces by the various military programs of Earth states.

I’m not putting my hopes on Voyager One and Two. Before those probes strike gold, I’m sure they’ll be destroyed by asteroids and other space elements.

On this note, I wish you a not-so-dystopian 2017,

More information
– Kim Forrester: ‘The Death of Grass’ by John Christopher, blog post published on 2 February 2010, link retrieved on 26 November 2016
– Alfred Hickling: The Death of Grass, review published in the Guardian on 4 April 2009, link retrieved on 24 November 2016
– John Self: John Christopher: The Death of Grass, blog post published on 2 April 2009, link retrieved on 26 November 2016
– Jessica Strider: REVIEW: The Death of Grass by John Christopher, published in SF Signal on 8 September 2012, link retrieved on 26 November 2016

Other novels and stories by Christopher
  • The Long Winter (1962)
  • A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965)
  • The Little People (1966)
  • The Tripods Trilogy (1967-1968)
  • The Lotus Caves (1969)
  • The Guardians (197o)
  • The Sword of the Spirits Trilogy (1970-1972)
  • Empty World (1977)
  • The Fireball Trilogy (1981-1986)

More books on Goodreads

“Even though brutality used toward the young, by reason of their defenselessness, provoked greater anger and greater pity, it was still true that they were resilient. Was the wind tempered to the shorn lamb? He grimaced. All the lambs were shorn now, and the wind was from the northeast, full of ice and black frost.”
~John Christopher, The Death of Grass


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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