Monday, May 18, 2015

No Blade of Grass by John Christopher

"I didn't like the way those bastards down there treated us, but I have to admit they had the right idea.  It's force that counts now."

Around ten years ago, I guess, I read library copies of John Christopher's first three Tripods books, and enjoyed them.  More recently, I read Christopher's The Long Winter and thought it was pretty good.  Back in November of last year I got, for almost nothing at the Salvation Army, a hardcover Book Club Edition of No Blade of Grass, the US retitling of Christopher's 1956 novel The Death of Grass.  Joachim Boaz on twitter and his blog has suggested that No Blade of Grass is somewhat hard to find and expensive, and the jacket, with its unusual come-on ("this jacket description has made no attempt to give you any idea of the plot"), is certainly intriguing.  I guess my acquisition of the novel was something of a coup; let's see if the text lives up to the hype.

At the start of the novel it is the late 1950s; we meet several nice English people: John the engineer; his brother David who owns a farm in a somewhat secluded valley; John's old Army buddy Roger, the cynical government PR flack; the wives and kids.  David and Roger are perfectly positioned to provide John (and us readers) insight on the current world crisis: the virus which is killing crops in Asia and causing mass starvation, and which threatens to get to England any moment!

The virus kills grasses (rice and wheat, as you foodies and botanists already know, are grasses) so when it hits the U.K. the British people will have to live on potatoes and beets!  Her Majesty's Government calculates that such a diet can only support 33% of the British population, so it is decided to euthanize two-thirds of the people...with nuclear bombs!  These bombs will be targeted at the cities, leaving all potential potato fields intact.  Roger gets wind of this secret plan and he and John flee London with their families for David's isolated valley--to make it out of London they have to assassinate soldiers at a roadblock.

The country devolves into anarchy in a matter of hours, and Roger and John have to battle it out with rapists and bandits.  Their cars are seized by what amounts to a robber baron (the medieval kind, not what your high school teacher called Andrew Carnegie) and the band has to march dozens of miles on foot.  Along the way they become murderous bandits themselves, and, in need of firepower to deal with all the other groups of brigands, John recruits followers from among other people on the road, becoming a sort of feudal chief!      

The main theme of the novel is decent 20th century people quickly abandoning all modern morality in a crisis, and taking up medieval or ancient pagan morality, a morality which justifies any act which protects one's family and maintains honor in the eyes of one's fellows and followers.  John is repeatedly directly compared to a medieval baron, who is owed allegiance from, and in turn owes protection to, his followers.  At the end of the story poor John has to decide between loyalty to his followers and to his family; David's valley is already full of refugees by the time John gets there, and can support no more, so John has to storm his own brother's property!

Christopher keeps ambiguous to what extent he feels the utter ruthlessness of the British government, and of John himself, is justified.  This ambiguity is symbolized in Pirrie, a cold and efficient killer who joins John's band early on and whose cleverness and marksmanship make the journey possible.  All through the book Pirrie does dreadful things, but also keeps the party alive, leading John and his family (and the reader) constantly wondering how to feel about, and how to deal with, him.

John's journey, and the moral ambiguity of the things he does to get his people to a new home, is reminiscent of the Aeneid.  There are also plenty of explicit Biblical allusions.  

No Blade of Grass contains several elements that might be of special interest to a 21st century audience.  First, gender issues.  The male characters, for the most part, treat the female characters as second class citizens, either protecting them or taking advantage of the lack of law and order to rape them.  Christopher develops the numerous women characters about as conscientiously as he does the men, and we see how they react to the new and horrible circumstances of post-apocalyptic life, how their values and behavior change.  Nowadays, his portrayal of them might be considered sexist-- there aren't any kung fu girls or female snipers or anything like that; women don't do any of the fighting or leading, though they participate in the debates around the many ethical dilemmas John and his people face.

There is also a lot of talk of the characteristics of different ethnicities and nationalities--the extent to which this is Christopher criticizing British attitudes about other cultures, I'm not sure, though a theme of the novel seems to be that English people see themselves as particularly civilized and disciplined, but in fact will devolve into savagery as fast as anybody.  A fat Jewish businessman appears briefly; he makes a ruckus when separated from his office by the military road block.  Cold and merciless Pirrie is half-French, says that Arabs love to steal and that the English "are sluggish in logic as well as imagination."  Our main characters are all middle-class Londoners, but there are portrayals of country people and working class people as well.  Perhaps The Death of Grass is a useful text for figuring out mid-century British beliefs about the character of both British and non-British peoples.

You could say that No Blade of Grass is an ecological or environmentalist story, but, to be honest, I think the grass-killing-virus premise is there simply to provide the opportunity for society to collapse and for Christopher to get to his violent adventure and little debates about morality and leadership.  For this I was grateful; I don't fancy reading science lectures or green propaganda, I like adventure and human drama.

From a purely literary/entertainment point of view, the novel is a success, and I recommend it; fans of post-apocalyptic and end-of-the-world type of books in particular should give it a read.  The pace is fast, and Christopher's style is lean, smooth and highly readable; there are lots of actions scenes, and the debates I have referred to are tense and quick, not long philosophical discussions or speeches like you might find in a Heinlein novel.  Students of SF history will perhaps want to compare No Blade of Grass to L. Ron Hubbard's 1940 Final Blackout, another novel in which a ruthless guy revives feudal rule in a post-apocalyptic England, but lacks the ambiguity and literary craft Christopher puts into this book.   

3 comments:

  1. I've wanted this book for a long time. You're really lucky that you got a cheap copy... reminds me of the joy I had when I discovered Moderan by David R. Bunch for 2$ rather than the 30+ it goes for online!

    I have enjoyed Christopher's works in the past -- I loved the tripod series as a kid. And The Long Winter is a really fun satire.

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  2. It pays sometimes to visit Salvation Army, Goodwill, garage sales, library book sales; places where sellers perhaps haven't done the research on prices a bookstore owner or other pro will almost always do.

    I will definitely read more Christopher should I encounter any.

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  3. You may be interested to know that John Christopher's 'The White Voyage' is available free on Kindle this weekend (6-7 June) - see http://thesylepress.com/the-white-voyage-2/

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