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.