Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Death of Grass


Thank God for the blogosphere. Last month I recommended several blogs, one of which was the excellent Bookseller Crow. Mr Crow found my recommendation and reciprocated by posting one of his own, the brilliant Caustic Cover Critic. I clicked on the link and found a kindred spirit - someone who has a fascination with apocalyptic novels. CCC recommended several books by John Christopher and as a result, I have read six of his novels within the last month.

Yesterday I finished The Death of Grass, which is widely regarded as John Christopher's best work and has, regretably, been acclaimed as the finest science fiction novel of all time. I say regretably because this novel deserves a wider readership. If The Death of Grass is sci-fi, then so is Cormac McCarthy's The Road and a number of other novels I could mention. I believe that speculative or apocalyptic novels like these are a sub-genre within mainstream fiction.

Christopher is no Cormac McCarthy, but The Death of Grass is a compelling novel about the human condition and in an age where we are increasingly concerned about the end of oil, it is as relevant as it was 50 years ago.

Why isn't this book in print today? Like some of John Christopher's other novels, the dialogue and attitudes are dated. Do we really need to be told that a person is swarthy and Jewish-looking unless it's somehow relevant to the narrative? Also, comments like 'the kind of failure in thoroughness that might be expected of Asiatics' will grate with most contemporary readers. However, for all its faults, The Death of Grass is an extraordinary, visionary novel.

I think many of us are increasingly aware how fragile contemporary society is. It is not just the prospects of global warming, terrorism, nuclear war or the end of oil that threaten us, but also the fact that we are so interdependent. As individuals we are extremely vulnerable. Our grandparents' generation were more likely to know basic skills like growing vegetables, knitting, sewing and carpentry. What would we do today if the supply chain suddenly ground to a halt, for whatever reason?

The Death of Grass offers the likely answer. In an over-populated country like Britain, the competition for resources would inevitably lead to social collapse within a short space of time. There is nothing like hunger to break down the veneer of civilisation.

I hope that some forward-thinking publisher reissues this novel. With a decent jacket and an imaginative marketing campaign, The Death of Grass could find a whole new generation of readers. In the meantime, second-hand copies are selling for at least £25 on Ebay.

NB - Penguin reissued this novel in 2009 as part of their Modern Classics series.

21 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, it was discussed at length a while back in a documentary about British science fiction and the first thing I did was check on-line for a copy. One day I'll track down a copy but I'm afraid even £25 is a bit too much for me at the moment.

Steerforth said...

Too much for me too. I shouldn't have bought it, but I enjoyed John Christopher's other books so much that I gave in to temptation.

JRSM said...

Glad you liked it, Mr Steerforth. At the risk of being a pedant, it IS science-fiction, and so is 'The Road', and so, for that matter, are things like '1984' and 'Frankenstein'. I know publishers hate to admit it because they see it as damaging sales, but SF can be literature.

Steerforth said...

According to the dictionary definition of science fiction, you're absolutely right. But I think that the genre of apocalyptic novels appeals more to readers of mainstream fiction than hardcore SF fans.

I can understand why publishers are timid. As a bookseller I know that many people won't touch anything that smacks of SF with a barge pole. It's interesting to see how well 'The Man in the High Castle' sells with a normal jacket compared to the SF cover.

Conversely, I've struggled to sell 'The Handmaid's Tale' in the Science Fiction section.

I think we either have to redefine the genre or change our attitudes towards it.

Rockefeller Republican said...

I read this book, for the first time, about two months ago and absolutely loved it. It's the first book I've read in a very long time that absolutely gripped me from the opening sentence. What makes it so interesting is not just the rendering of the collapse of British society - which I found both bleak and plausible - but it also constitutes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the social history of this country. One really gets a sense from the book of a society built on class and deference that has changed considerably from the 1950s, but this only serves to enhance the book's qualities, in my view. Is John Christopher/Sam Youd still writing today? If so, do you know how to contact him? I think this book would make a great radio play and I would be interested in adapting it for that purpose (I am a freelance writer) if I could secure his permission to do so but do not know how to make contact with him.

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
goggled said...

The Death of Grass can be found online as a text and PDF file here:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/2586284/The-Death-of-Grass-by-John-Christopher

Jim Murdoch said...

Excellent! I've downloaded the PDF. Now to dig my old Rocket Reader out of the drawer and see if I can get it to work.

Blackheath Bugle said...

Just added a link about this page to my blog: http://blackheathbugle.wordpress.com/

John Self said...

"I hope that some forward-thinking publisher reissues this novel."

No sooner said than done! I don't know about a marketing campaign*, but The Death of Grass will definitely be getting a decent jacket as Penguin are reissuing it in April 09 as a Modern Classic. Can't wait, thanks again for bringing it to our attention.

Other sci-fi-that-may-not-be-sci-fi titles which are getting the Modern Classic treatment soon are Brian Aldiss's Hothouse and Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, best known as the inspiration for the film Soylent Green.

*unless my Penguin Modern Classic-obsessed blog counts.

Richard de pesando MA(RCA) said...

There was a discussion at Faber to reprint all the John Christopher books about a year ago but were not considered viable at the time, I have recently been told - but may be considered again if the appetite continues etc.

The paperback does appear in 2nd had shops quite often - so keep looking.

Richard de pesando MA(RCA) said...

I almost forgot, there is a film version ( No Blade Of Grass ), staring Nigel Davenport and directed by Cornel Wilde that you can see in about 9 parts on YouTube, it's pretty faithful to the spirit of the book and quite brutal - it also has a decent sized role for a very young Wendy Richard playing a brassy tart, so early typecasting there.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066154/

james said...

if there is misfortune in this book, or other work, being labelled science fiction, surely the misfortune belongs to you -and anybody else who shares your prejudice?

Steerforth said...

Well that's a big debate. I don't think that the Death of Grass is Science Fiction (in the Isaac Asimov sense of the term) and if you categorise it as such, you risk putting off a lot of people who would enjoy this novel.

al said...

Hi. Just finished No Blade of Grass (got hold of a US 1st Ed) and it's gutting. Have recently read Nevil Shute's On the Beach which is a masterful exploration of the human character in the face of destruction. It's the opposite of Grass, a deep unsettling tone of resignation permeates and ultimately frustrates the reader brilliantly, a great success. Read it i'd enjoy hearing what others think. also, the road is the most affecting piece of fiction i've read for many years...

Annabel Gaskell said...

A great review - I concur completely. Which other John Christopher books would you recommend?

Steerforth said...

"The World in Winter" is a corker - another dystopian novel with some interesting themes that reflect Britain's changing role.

"A Wrinkle in the Skin" treads over old ground, but is great fun if you like the genre.

I also enjoyed Christopher's young adult novels, particularly 2The Guardians" and "Empty World".

SpaceIntruderDetector said...

Good blog entry about a woefully under appreciated novel. This one really knocked me out when i read it for the first time about 15 years ago. I actually had to get an original published "No Blade of Grass" hard cover that a used bookseller tracked down for me to read it. Before the internet! This really needs a re-issue and a new audience. "The Long Winter" is also a fantastic book and highly reccommended!

Anonymous said...

Christopher is no Cormac McCarthy! What a strange thing to say. Of course these are different authors! But to take your reference in its presumably intended figurative sense, Christopher was in fact a rather better author than McCarthy.

Steerforth said...

Not was, but is - at the time of writing, he's still alive.

Is John Christopher really a better author than Cormac McCarthy? How many times have his novels been acclaimed as masterpieces?

I'm a huge fan of Sam Youd's work. He is a great storyteller, with intelligent, thought-provoking plots and I think it's scandalous that much of his work is out of print. However, his writing is a little rough and ready compared to Cormac McCarthy, whose prose style is masterly.

Perhaps I shouldn't have drawn a comparison in the first place, as they're two very different sorts of writers. Christopher is a working writer with a prolific output; McCarthy is a literary novelist who labours for years to produce one slim novel. I enjoy both of them for different reasons.

Anonymous said...

The phrase 'the kind of failure in thoroughness that might be expected of Asiatics' is John Christopher's description of the (then) contemporary attitudes of UK society. How the late-50s UK/Western media viewed the failure to root out plants contaminated with the virus.