Friday, August 30, 2013

Book Review: No Blade of Grass by John Christopher

There’s more than one way to get to the post in post-apocalyptic fiction. While a third world war/nuclear explosion is one of the most used, there are also plenty of meteorological catastrophes, flu pandemics, technological failures, and even aliens or zombies as plot catalysts for post-apocalyptic scenarios.

John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass (1956) starts with a virus, but not just any virus. Rather than people, this virus kills all grasses quite quickly, mutating faster than scientists can find a counter-virus. That means no rice and no wheat --the basis of most of the world’s food supply. Without grass, cattle have nothing to graze upon, either, so the meat supply is also endangered.

The result is almost the opposite of the standard post-apocalyptic scenario, which usually concerns a decimated population of humans. In this novel, the population is plentiful; it’s the food that’s scarce.

When rumors leak that the British government plans to deal with the problem by swiftly reducing the population (i.e., atom-bombing major city centers), panicked families flee London and literally head for the hills. The ensuing chaos spreads even more rapidly than the grass virus.

The family at the center of No Blade of Grass has insider information via a government-employed friend, so they have a bit of a head start. Their plan is to reach a relative’s farm, which, situated in a deep valley bordered by a treacherous river and steep mountains, will allow them to survive while shutting the gate behind them (also literally).

John Custance is determined that his family reach the farm so they can grow up in a civilized manner, no matter what the cost along the way. John’s choices are hard ones, and the every-man-for-himself mentality he encounters on the road leads him to making decisions (on a smaller scale) of the type he previously condemned the government for.

When he confronts a band of thieves --men who would have been ordinary working men just weeks ago-- they accuse him outright. If he’s made it this far, one suggests, he must have more than theft to his name. His accusation is so true it stings.

It becomes clear that in his quest to get his family to civilization, he’s losing civility along the way.

No Blade of Grass is frightening because people can be frightening, and when they’re placed in extreme situations, it’s almost impossible to predict exactly what even the most well-meaning person will do.

A bit of a difficulty in reading the book is in the names. Whether it’s because plain names were popular in the ‘50s, or perhaps because Christopher was attempting an Everyfamily, the characters are a nightmare to keep straight: John, Roger, Mary, Anne, David and Jane. It’s cause for rejoicing when a boy named Spooks joins the ensemble.

First published in England as The Death of Grass, the book’s American publishers thought the title “sounded like something out of a gardening catalogue.” It was made into a film in 1970, and BBC Radio 4 broadcast a five-part radio drama in 2009, narrated by Peep Show’s David Mitchell.

Author John Christopher (the pseudonym for Sam Youd) probably first came to a lot of readers’ attention as the writer of the young adult series The Tripods.

If you've read any post-apocalyptic fiction (or seen any films), what was the catalyst for the collapse of civilization? Do you prefer realistic or supernatural events as causes for a fictitious apocalypse?

Note: This previously-published post was updated for Friday's Forgotten Books, as I'm still finishing up Richard Matheson's Someone Is Bleeding. Look for the review next Friday.


  1. That’s a hell of a cover!
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. Indeed. No Blade of Grass has several cover iterations, and each is more bizarre than the last. Oddly, I couldn't find an image of the version I have. I'll have to scan it in later. In the meantime, I might add some of the other versions.

  3. I think there is some linkage between No Blade of Grass and The Road.

    McCarthy simply took the death of grass to the logical progression of the deat of photosynthsis.

    This is in its own weird way, a much more brutal apocalypse in progress novel than many you find today.

    The good guys are not really all that good.

  4. Hi Russsell-- I subscribe to your blog.

    I think there are a few parallels with The Road, but the catalyst in The Road --never explicitly revealed, though there are clues-- is quite different. In McCarthy's book, grasses are gone, sure, but so are all plants.

    In Christopher's, only grasses are gone. Other crops can be grown, though not with enough speed to sustain the population, which has not been decimated at all.

    I agree with you about the good guys not being so good. It's one of the best aspects of No Blade of Grass. The code of ethics for a person can change so rapidly in trying times, and John's evolution as the group's leader is both chilling and understandable.

  5. I don't usually "go" for apocalyptic fiction, but I did recently read Hunger Games (I think the cause was war, not necessarily nuclear, but I couldn't swear to that); illness/mutation of bio-agents (The Handmaid's Tale), global climate change (Waterworld).

    One thing is sure, there are too many plausible ways of reaching a crisis for human beans!

  6. This book was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. We were in the service in Morocco at the time, and waiting for the next installment was agony.

  7. Thank you other anonymous, for the reference to the Saturday Evening Post. I knew I had read it serialized in some magazine, but I couldn't remember which one.

  8. Thanks Kelly, brought back lots of memories of TRIPODS and the movie of BLADE though i don;t remember the book at all. As a lad I do remember being impressed by I AM LEGEND (book and fiorst 2 movies) and Harry Harrison's MAKE ROOM MAKE ROOM! (filmed as SOYLENT GREEN), though none were quite so distressing to a young pre-teen lad as seeing Bruce Dern destroy the last of the world's forests in the absurdly glum SILENT RUNNING. I recemtly re-read SOMEONE IS BLEEDING, so very curious to see what you make of it!

    1. I Am Legend impressed me as an adult -- I've read it three times. (It helps that it's a quick read.)

      I came across your Someone Is Bleeding post the other day, but I only skimmed it. I don't want to be unduly influenced by other opinions. I'll go back and read it carefully after, and I look forward to it.

  9. The Brits like John Christopher and J. G. Ballard specialized in apocalyptic SF novels. For a movie in this vain, I recommend THE WORLD'S END currently in theaters now. THE ROAD is one of the grimmest books in this genre.

    1. Though plenty of folks, such as Edward Wellen and Henry Slesar, were able to be just as grim in vignette form back when...

      Saddest thing for me is how much good work is forgotten and the likes of THE ROAD celebrated as a Bold New Vision. Edgar Pangborn's DAVY is interesting as one of the examples of how such fiction can deal with survival under such circumstances...not, mind you, in the survivalist manner that, say, Robert Heinlein's atrocious FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD set the standard for (though Philip Wylie wasn't too shy about polemical disaster stories, either).

      Two of my favorites in this mode are Stephen Vincent Benet's short story "By the Waters of Babylon" (along with such poems of his as "Nightmare with Angels") and Kate Wilhelm's WELCOME, CHAOS...though her and Ted Thomas's brilliant blob story, THE CLONE, is also eminently worth seeking out.

    2. I'm with you, Todd. I enjoyed The Road, but I didn't find it exceptional in its bleakness. In fact, I was plenty of aware of what works he was riffing on.

      I haven't read the Wilhelm you mention, but I liked her post-apocalyptic book Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang quite a bit. My all-time favorite has got to be Earth Abides, though.

  10. I recently reread the book (after having read it in an SF binge as a teenager) and was most struck by Christopher's heavy emphasis on how immediately women would become chattels if society were placed under that kind of stress. Possibly true, but he dwells on it to an extent I found a bit distasteful.

    1. I don't recall it being distasteful -- frightening, maybe. I was far more offended by Alas, Babylon, which is so dismissive of women and their frailty that I wanted to throw it across the room. Sure, it was written a long time ago, but puh-leeze. I remember a particular passage where a woman nurses an injured man and gives him food because it's what "she was born to do."

  11. I much prefer realistic events bringing about disruption to civilization. They're far scarier since they are things we can easily imagine coming about. The premise of this book sounds like a good one.

    I've read John Christoper's Pendulum and enjoyed it a great deal. I like his style of writing.

    Tossing It Out

  12. John Christopher is one of my favourite authors. I read a lot of his YA fiction in elementary school, but it was No Blade of Grass that really brought him back into my world. He wrote a wide range of books under several pseudonyms until he struck it big with the Tripods trilogy and stuck with YA fiction. I am on a mission to find those books, but it has been tough!

    What I love about him is his ability to generate unease. His characters are often quite insecure and there is a great deal of repressed sexual conflict in his books that I find compelling. He also loves to rip apart polite British upper middle class society. He wrote a few post-apocalyptic books, including A Wrinkle in the Skin (massive earthquakes), The World in Winter (climate change to the colder with a fascinating first-world third world power reversal as whites becomes the underclass in equatorial countries) and the previously mentioned Pendulum (British youth run wild). They are all interesting and worth reading.

    Kate M. is not off-target in her critique in the comment above (Hi Kate!). Rape and how it affects the male protagonist's perception of woman is a big deal with him and it comes up a lot. A cheap interpretation might be that it reflects the post-Empire British masculine anxiety, but it probably needs somebody smarter than me to pick it apart. In any case, he does dwell on it. However, I find it not unrealistic and goes in line with the general contempt he feels for the upper middle-class British male, which is another strong theme in a lot of his books. He is not unlike Ballard in that way.

    If you can get your hands on The Possessors, I would recommend it. It's a great combo of savage class critique and a great alien invasion thriller.

    Sorry to geek out, but I love me some John Christopher. Now if any of you have a line on books by Hilary Ford, William Godfrey, Peter Graaf, Peter Nichols, Stanley Winchester or Samuel Youd himself, let me know! (Those are all the pseudonyms he wrote under.)

    1. >Rape and how it affects the male protagonist's perception of woman is a big deal with him and it comes up a lot. A cheap interpretation might be that it reflects the post-Empire British masculine anxiety, but it probably needs somebody smarter than me to pick it apart. In any case, he does dwell on it. However, I find it not unrealistic and goes in line with the general contempt he feels for the upper middle-class British male, which is another strong theme in a lot of his books. He is not unlike Ballard in that way.

      I agree that the subject is very present. I just disagree that it's distasteful to write about in the context of societal breakdown.

      Now for a treatment of rape I DID find hard to stomach, see my current review of SOMEONE IS BLEEDING.

  13. Yes, I'm with you. It's disturbing, but I don't find it distasteful.