The Dim-Post

September 6, 2015

Notes on the Death of Grass

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:16 am

This is a novel by John Christopher. I reread his Tripods series recently. They’re some of the best Young Adult books I’ve read, and after learning from his biography that he got his start with adult literature I decided to try his first successful novel. The Death of Grass – 1956, published in the US as No Blade of Grass on the grounds that the original title sounded like something from a gardening magazine – is an apocalyptic novel in which a virus decimates global food crops leading to famine and the collapse of civilisation. It was a hit at the time but went out of print, until recently when it was listed as one of the best out-of-print novels published in the UK and subsequently republished.

It’s good. I can see why it was a hit. But it’s also really incredibly grim. Most post-apocalyptic novels and movies like to cleanly kill off most of the population via a third party – virus, zombies etc – so that the characters have a clean start. Those stories are a reaction against modernity and a fantasy about starting again in a simpler, quieter world. Death of Grass is an argument for modernity but also its fragility. As soon as civilisation is challenged it collapses and everyone starts murdering each other for food. Women instantly become chattels. Insufficiently brutal men are executed. It’s horrible.

I can see why the book went out of print. It might be more realistic than the rest of the genre but that only shows that realism isn’t a desirable quality when you’re writing about the apocalypse.

29 Comments »

  1. It might be more realistic than the rest of the genre but that only showed me that realism isn’t a desirable quality when you’re writing about the apocalypse.

    The Road?

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — September 6, 2015 @ 8:21 am

  2. Saw the heading, thought: ‘Wait, what – Gunter Grass died *AGAIN*?

    Comment by robhosking — September 6, 2015 @ 9:16 am

  3. @rob,

    Maybe it’s taken until now for Danyl to hear the news … or to process it.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — September 6, 2015 @ 9:20 am

  4. As soon as civilisation is challenged it collapses and everyone starts murdering each other for food.

    Our default position as a species is chimpanzee rather than bonobo.

    I think we don’t fully understand how we have progressed to any form of liberal democracy. We tend to see it as via the actions of heroic individuals and/or social movement. Which is true to an extent.

    But another factor is technology – including information technology from books to Twitter. In darker moments I tend to think perhaps liberal democracy is a mere spandrel of technology and perhaps will be a short lived one.

    Comment by NeilM — September 6, 2015 @ 10:09 am

  5. I remember this one from my distant childhood. My dad would bring home well-used magazines that had been donated to his workplace, and it was serialised in the Saturday Evening Post as No Blade of Grass. Along with a steady diet of Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason stories they serialised Alan Le May’s epic western The Unforgiven (as Kiowa Moon) and Leonard Wibberley’s The Mouse That Roared.

    Comment by Joe W — September 6, 2015 @ 10:18 am

  6. The Road?

    The Road still has characters with a sense of morality. This is kind of like The Road if the dad immediately started killing strangers to steal their food.

    Comment by danylmc — September 6, 2015 @ 10:28 am

  7. Although it’s true The Road is a critique of all those books – like Station 11 – that see the post-apocalypse as a sort of pastoral adventure.

    Comment by danylmc — September 6, 2015 @ 10:35 am

  8. This is the Lord of the Flies hypothesis – the idea that humans are innately brutal and that we’re only kept from murdering babies or whatever by a thin veneer of civilisation. We tend to assume that this idea is “realistic” simply because it’s so dark. Why this concept is so immensely comforting to people I’m not sure – perhaps they enjoy the idea that underneath they’re actually some kind of medieval badarse (because we tend to equate “cruel” with “tough and practical”), or perhaps it’s because, if they believe that humanity as a whole is morally reprehensible, then we can tell ourselves that our individual relative decency puts us in the top 5%, morally. But either way, I think it’s silly to call this kind of neo-medieval horror show “realistic”. We have no idea how we’d behave in an apocalypse scenario, but it seems reasonable to assume that the more extreme scenarios are less likely.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 6, 2015 @ 7:56 pm

  9. There are many, many examples from human history that show how humans behave under extreme and unsurvivable conditions.

    I actually see Lord of the Flies somewhat differently to adult books like The Death of Grass, The Road, etc, where death is a central theme. Lord of the Flies is less about the innate brutality of humans and more about controlled brutality that must be focused and channeled if one is to grow up to administer a colonial empire or survive in the old boy’s network of British capitalism. This could be a bias due to my education at a traditional boys school with compulsory learning of the Haka, muscular Christianity lurking in the background, and so forth. I distinctly remember Lord of the Flies being given to us to read in that context (in a class of highly intelligent, abusive and subversive 4th formers), so I assumed the story was a metaphor for the school experience itself.

    Danyl, on a related tangent, one book you may possibly find interesting is The Painted Bird (1965). I found it quite upsetting to read. It stretches credulity and convention in a number of ways, but ties into similar questions about human cruelty and savagery. The plagiarism and realism controversy surrounding it is also quite interesting.

    Comment by Mark Rickerby (@maetl) — September 6, 2015 @ 8:37 pm

  10. Mad Max?

    Comment by 1218 — September 6, 2015 @ 8:50 pm

  11. @Mark: I like that interpretation of Lord of the Flies much better. I usually see it presented as just an expose of generic human brutality but thinking back on it I think you’re probably right. The generic presentation probably exists as a way to elide the class analysis and anti-Imperialism.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 6, 2015 @ 9:36 pm

  12. @kalvarnsen “the idea that humans are innately brutal and that we’re only kept from murdering babies or whatever by a thin veneer of civilisation”

    The veneer seems to have worn off the ‘people’ at planned parenthood. Civilization, your mileage may vary.

    Comment by Danny G — September 7, 2015 @ 7:14 am

  13. “…the idea that humans are innately brutal and that we’re only kept from murdering babies or whatever by a thin veneer of civilisation. We tend to assume that this idea is “realistic” simply because it’s so dark. Why this concept is so immensely comforting to people I’m not sure…

    Comforting? I get fascinating or horrifyingly compelling, but “comforting” is an odd word to use. I certainly didn’t finish The Road in a mood of smug contentment, happily looking around at my fellow citizens and thinking “you may be monsters, but I’d never be.”

    FWIIW, I’d agree that the description “realistic” is relative – certainly The Road or The Death of Grass (from how Danyl explains it) sounds more imaginably right than (say) TC Boyle’s After the Plague or Stewart’s Earth Abides … insofar as it’s possible to really imagine what a world in which there is (in essence) no more food would be like. But I get the same feeling from those books as I do from reading Ballard – I don’t see him as telling me what really would happen if you stick a whole lot of middle class people in a tower block or in enclaves on the French Coast.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — September 7, 2015 @ 7:50 am

  14. “Comforting? I get fascinating or horrifyingly compelling, but “comforting” is an odd word to use”

    I find it odd too, but there’s a particular niche genre of demonstrative cynicism that really does seem to draw a very real pseudo-intellectual satisfaction from projections of human carnage the moment the Twix run out. All these tediously repetitive zombie franchises are perhaps a more mundane manifestation of it.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 7, 2015 @ 8:44 am

  15. I think it’s better to view both the Death of the Grass and John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider as early examples of writers exploring one of the extinction event possibilities that science has given us. DotG should also be seen as a counterpoint to Wyndham’s novels which mix science with more usual horror/supernatural tropes.

    All this is well and good tho’ but it doesn’t get Battle truck re-released.

    Comment by rsmsingers — September 7, 2015 @ 9:42 am

  16. All these tediously repetitive zombie franchises are perhaps a more mundane manifestation of it.

    Vampires are all about the sex. Zombies are all about economic uncertainty. It’s no coincidence that the recent rise of “zombie franchises” took place within the aftermath of the GFC.

    Not quite sure about Werewolves, but. Maybe that’s why they don’t really have their own thing.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — September 7, 2015 @ 9:54 am

  17. ‘The Enemy’ series by the Fast Show’s Charlie Higson is brutal and unsettling. Great book for scaring your kids. No namby pamby hunger games endings in these books.

    Comment by insider — September 7, 2015 @ 10:38 am

  18. @AG

    What do you mean werewolves don’t have their own thing?!!! Just because you can’t see any from the balcony of your ivory tower…

    A.

    Comment by Antoine — September 7, 2015 @ 10:49 am

  19. I last read The Death of Grass in my late teens as part of the process of trawling through my Dad’s extensive sci-fi library. As a result of this odyssey, Christopher and Wyndham pretty much set the bar for me in terms of sci-fi writing.

    I would recommend reading The World in Winter as something of a companion piece – almost equally apocalyptic but a I think a more interesting narrative of British colonialism turned on its head.
    As a kid I also loved Christopher’s incredibly bleak Empty World which scared the shit out of me.

    AS an aside, remember thinking after reading both Herbert’s The White Plague and King’s The Stand, how much these writer’s had borrowed thematically from Christopher’s work.

    Comment by Gregor W — September 7, 2015 @ 11:11 am

  20. As soon as civilisation is challenged it collapses and everyone starts murdering each other for food. Women instantly become chattels. Insufficiently brutal men are executed. It’s horrible.

    It’s a fiction. Civilised people have been eating the lunch of the uncivilised for several millenia. Cooperating to take other peoples stuff is a central theme of our civility.

    Comment by unaha-closp — September 7, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

  21. Civilised people have been eating the lunch of the uncivilised for several millennia

    I would submit to you that uncivilised people don’t lunch…

    Comment by Gregor W — September 7, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

  22. See how successful the civilised have been.

    Comment by unaha-closp — September 7, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

  23. “It’s no coincidence that the recent rise of “zombie franchises” took place within the aftermath of the GFC.”

    The recent rash of zombie-related media predates the GFC by several years. 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead and World War Z appeared in 2003, 2004 and 2006, respectively.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 7, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

  24. Zombies possibly embody a deap fear of being invaded by people much like ourselves but having been made inhuman to justify our response.

    Given the long history of this actually happening it wouldn’t be surprising if it surfaces in horror movies.

    I prefer the morally more complex dystopia of The Stalker which isn’t without elements of comedy although dark enough to be missed as comedy.

    Comment by NeilM — September 7, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

  25. The recent rash of zombie-related media predates the GFC by several years.

    See! The signs that the 00’s boom was built on sand were there for anyone with the eyes to look!!

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — September 7, 2015 @ 6:19 pm

  26. Clearly Danny Boyle was clued in by the Illuminati

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 7, 2015 @ 7:36 pm

  27. Oh, Danny Boyle didn’t need clued in. He is the Pindar.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — September 7, 2015 @ 8:21 pm

  28. There’s a meme that has been going around, since at least 2011, suggesting zombie and vampire movies are the manifestation of our (i.e. the USA’s) political fears. It’s the first chart in this article from Cracked.
    http://www.cracked.com/article_19402_6-mind-blowing-ways-zombies-vampires-explain-america.html

    Comment by Phil — September 9, 2015 @ 11:56 am

  29. I read “No Blade of Grass” years and years ago. It’s a pessimistic view of atomised, desperate humanity in a disaster. I was hoping rational people would co-operate effectively for the common good……but 30 years of observing the oppisite in a neo-liberal context has undermined that faith somewhat….as it’s obviously a #FAIL, but many people still vote for it anyway.

    Comment by Steve W — September 14, 2015 @ 11:38 pm


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