No Blade of Grass by John Christopher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
John Christopher's No Blade of Grass (also known as The Death of Grass is one of those books which will haunt me, of that I have no doubt.
I read and adored Christopher's Tripods books as a boy. There is something in the dystopia, in the vision of a land from which millions upon millions have vanished, leaving only a few survivors, which appealed to me even as a boy. Knowing this, and knowing vaguely the subject of No Blade of Grass, I was not prepared for how brilliant - and how terrible - this book was. With none of the usual mechanisms of science fiction - not even a Triffid (in tone, Grass does strongly resemble John Wyndham's classic book) - John Christopher shows why sometimes, all it takes to build a terrifying future is just a little imagination. Sometimes, it only requires a tiny virus which acts on certain select plants.
Quickly, precisely, and brutally, Christopher recounts the events of a future-present in which a virus appears in China and runs amok through the rice crops, causing starvation, dehumanisation, and the deaths of millions from starvation. An anti-viral agent is found, and the West breathes easy, but the reprieve is short-lived. The Chung-Li virus has many different phases, and the most recent strain which has emerged does not merely attack rice, but all strains of grasses. The practical upshot is starvation: without grass, there is no wheat, no barley, no rice, no oats - and therefore no livestock, bar pigs (which, it is mentioned in passing, can thrive on almost anything). As the virus spreads and foodstocks dwindle, brothers John and David Custance plan to retreat to the family farm in the north of England, where David is certain that he can fortify the valley and make it a refuge for his immediate family.
When the balloon goes up, John Custance's friend, Roger Buckley, a civil servant with his ear to the ground, gives them advance notice, and, in the company of Pirrie, a gun merchant, and their families, the three groups flee London with mere hours to spare, which is one of the many cities slated by the government for destruction - via nuclear weapons - rather than to allow the wholesale degradation and misery that might follow on from slow starvation.
What follows is a nightmare tour through the heart of England, against the backdrop of famine, murder, rape, uxoricide, and a desperate race for survival. As familiar towns are imagined to have fallen, either to the threatened nuclear attack by the RAF or by looting and pillaging of a populace quickly rendered desperate, the groups struggles toward what they imagine is a safe haven.
This does not read like a children's book to me, nor was it sold as one, as near as I can tell. It is a quick, compelling read, and the template for anyone who wants to write - or read - quintessential post-apocalyptic fiction. It is certainly a great pity that this book is out-of-print, but one may hope that the fashionable vogue will swing back to reprinting more of Christopher's work. Also, as indicated elsewhere, it is a cautionary tale written before the advent of genetic engineering, although it is hard to imagine anything going so hideously wrong. It is better that such things be kept in the world of fiction, to make us wary of the possibilities of reality.
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