Joined: 20 Nov 2006
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|No Blade Of Grass
John Christopher's 1956 novel "No Blade Of Grass" is an excellent book, but almost unknown today outside the circle of fanatical readers of speculative fiction. In fact, John Christopher's career as a science fiction writer for adults is hardly remembered today. Most people who know the name know him either as the author of several series of science fiction books for children, most notably the Tripods series, recently produced for television in his native England. In his day, John Christopher was a popular enough writer that he warranted what has become a tradition in Star Trek by paying homage to famous SF writers through naming characters, places and often space programs after them. In the first season episode "Tomorrow is Yesterday" of the original Star Trek series, the Air Force pilot beamed aboard the Enterprise was named John Christopher.
In truth, John Christopher was a pseudonym for Christopher Samuel Youd (an early fantasy, "The Winter Swan", was published as by Christopher Youd) a man whose writing career spanned many years, and many more pseudonyms. Characteristic of Christopher's work, whether for adults or children, is the attention and care spent on human reactions and emotions. Even in his work for children, he was concerned with how events shaped individuals, rather than with what shaped events. His work was generally more gentle than that of many thriller writers, with terror suggested rather than shown. "No Blade Of Grass", an apocalyptic novel of a world devastated by the destruction of all grasses, shows this preoccupation deliciously, with all the rough edges of craftsmanship smoothed into art as the survivors explore their destinies, and settle individual rivalries along the way. However, it should be pointed out that his efforts to show the above mentioned cause and effect relationship are not presented in the book without controversy among characters. One very strong example of events shaping individuals is found in the character of Jane. She is a young adolescent girl whose parents are killed for the food in their home by the protagonists of the novel. Being discovered after the deed is done, her presence raises the question of what is to be done with her. Most of the group are for leaving her behind assuming she would not wish to be with the murderers of her parents, except Olivia. who speaks out strongly that what they have done makes their responsibility to the girl even greater. She is allowed to talk to Jane who agrees to accompany the group and later partners with one of the very men who killed her parents. Jane's need to survive, her will to live, and her naivete combine to produce a new set of standards to live by—one's own survival.
"No Blade Of Grass" begins many years before the devastating events which form the core of the book. In a bucolic valley surrounded by inhospitable mountains with safe passage running along a narrow pass and beside a raging river, an aging English farmer promises his land to one of his young grandsons, who has expressed interest in farming when he grows up. His brother shows no signs of jealousy at the time, as he has no interest in the land, but prefers urban living and engineering. The brothers grow up, each seemingly content with his choice, both happy in the lives they have chosen.
We next meet them when a virus has decimated the rice paddies of Asia, a virus that has now mutated to effect other varieties of grass. The brothers, David the farmer and John the engineer, are visiting in the valley which David has inherited and now farms alone. David suggests that in the event that the virus is as devastating in Europe as it has been in Asia, John bring his family to the easily defensible valley as their best hope of survival. The remainder of the novel follows as the crisis evolves into complete chaos, and John struggles to reach the valley in safety. Along the way, other characters are added to the group traveling with John and his family. John's friend Roger and his family, a gun dealer and his wife, and many others in this group all of whom illustrate separate points in Christopher's view of this new world.
When the virus first strikes the planet, it strikes only one variety of grass: rice. The hardest hit country is China, where unmistakable government dogma outlaw poverty and famine as if the very elements of nature are subject to human decree. The Chinese government thus has to choose between two unpalatable options: admitting that its official policies are unworkable because they do not reflect environmental factors, or letting its citizens starve to death. As a sign of the contemporary views of Chinese communism, Christopher's China stands by the decree and their people die in the millions as nature overrules the petty commands of government. In England, the informed citizens discuss the situation in China, decrying its shortsightedness and inflexibility, but as something far away that is unlikely to affect them in their civilized world. Rice, after all, is hardly a staple in the West, and capitalistic governments are far more sensible than Mao's China.
The virus that attacks grass is a highly mutable one, which quickly adapts to other varieties of grass. While most of the world doesn't consider grass very often except perhaps as something to mow and mulch, the staples of life are primarily based on one variety of grass or another. Wheat and rye are both varieties of grass, and they are the basis not only for human foods such as bread and cake, but also for the livestock which provide meat and milk for humans. Alfalfa, another common feed for livestock, is a legume, but is too high in protein to be fed as the sole component of any diet. If grass is wiped out, not only will the world lose its ability to make bread for the table, but meat will also disappear. While man does not live by bread alone, a diet totally lacking in any form of flour or meat would not sustain life happily, nor for very long.
Few urban dwellers think in terms of agricultural issues. Throughout the early chapters of the novel, many characters discuss the crisis as though it's simply a minor irritation with few long-term implications. None of the urban characters seem to understand that a lack of grass will mean a stunning blow to the food supply, rather than simply creating a new market for rock gardens to replace lawns (on the other hand, these authors' travels through the American west make them marvel at the vast amounts of water used to keep lawns and golf courses green). Most city-dwellers are far enough removed from their food sources that they have difficulty in conceiving of desperate shortages. Even in the nineteen fifties, when the novel was written, the memory of food shortages during World War II was growing dim for most people in the Western world.
In England, the politicians were faced with their own unpalatable choices. They could order the farmers to renounce grass based crops in favor of potatoes, or they could hope that a cure would be found in time to save the crops. Work on a vaccine for the virus was said to be promising, but if it didn't appear in time, the crop would be lost, and the specter of starvation would appear across England's no longer green and pleasant land. On the other hand, if the government jumped in early and forced the farmers to shift their land to alternate crops, but the vaccine was completed in time to save the now defunct crops, the voters would surely topple the government in the next set of elections. The government sat on the fence until the virus made its decision for it. No one really believed they had encountered a super virus capable of mutating to any vaccine developed or the wide variety of grasses. All grass on earth was wiped out. The world found itself in a crisis of unimagined proportions.
The decimation of grass based crops will certainly lead to widespread starvation in England, and the government has to look for a solution to that problem. Here Christopher opens the door to true horror, because the English government plans to solve the hunger problem by bombing its own population centers. In the novel, a radio station taken over by a band of citizens, does indeed announce these plans. Listeners panic, but are quickly calmed by official announcements that no such plan is in the works. The characters we are following, John and his family, have had advance warning from John's friend Roger who works in the government and with whom they have agreed to escape the city as soon as word comes that the bombing attack is imminent. Since Roger will have some advance warning due to his position, they believe that this will give them enough time to escape the population centers and reach the easily defensible valley where David farms. Their ensuing journey seems to be fraught with one kind of road block after another.
The question of whether a government would bomb its own citizens is today far removed from reality for most of us. What possible crisis could lead to the US or England bombing its citizens? At the time this novel was written, however, the specter of Coventry was still shadowing the western world. It's worth digressing a bit on this subject. During World War II, the British managed to break an important code used by the Axis forces, specifically Nazi Germany. This code was called Enigma. By breaking the code, the British learned of German plans to bomb the town of Coventry. The choice faced by Churchill, as head of the wartime government, was a shocking one. If Coventry was evacuated, the Germans would know that their code was broken and the Allies would lose a powerful asset in the war. On the other hand, if the citizens of Coventry were not warned, many civilians would die. In the end, there was no warning given to the citizens of Coventry, the bombing was devastating, and the world had a new standard of horror in war. The debates still rage over these events. Was the benefit to the Allied Forces of their secret knowledge of the Enigma code worth the lives lost in Coventry? What could be more fleeting than secret codes? And at what point is the survival of the larger numbers worth the death of so many? Who decides whose life is worth the sacrifice? "No Blade Of Grass" brings up the question of whether the English Parliament is justified in perpetrating such horror on its citizens, bombing its own cities to kill off enough citizens that the rest have a chance to survive on the limited resources that remain. And who is to argue that the bombing of Coventry made it "moral" to kill millions with atomic bombs so that millions could live? Isn't the second part of that logic an estimate after all? These questions probably have no answer, and Christopher pays the compliment to his readers of not trying to provide one.
A recurring theme in science and speculative fiction is the question of how individuals will react to the destruction of the world familiar to them. "No Blade Of Grass" is no exception. The main characters can be seen as much by their function as by their characteristics. The protagonist, John, goes through many changes in the course of the novel, beginning as a typical, mild, middle class Englishman, and ending as the aggressive leader of a group of survivors. Christopher's skill at showing these changes makes this transformation almost seamless, and he delves inside his character to show the thoughts and worries that bring it about. John's friend Roger, their source of inside government information, begins the book as a rather formidable character only to come to the end as one of John's lesser sheep. Other characters are not so lucky. One, the wife of the gun seller Pirrie, cannot change her outlook on life and so pays with her own. Others, tertiary characters brought in only to illustrate various points, are also unable to adapt. Here Christopher makes a very strong argument against the modern world, in which survival is not in question, but only comfort. One group of survivors met by John's little band is led by a man who didn't notice that a child accompanying him had left the house with tennis shoes on, rather than boots. This is a small detail, but Christopher drives home his point that the small details matter when such a crisis overtakes the world. Suddenly, the questions are not about being able to pay bills or having enough left in your budget to make your car payment, but literally life and death. Will it be possible to find food? Will anyone survive the trek to safety from bands of looters and marauders? For many urban dwellers, the answers to these questions will be no.
John's little group grows as they move through the countryside trying to reach safety. The growth of the group for which he is responsible forces John's transformation, as he begins to realize his responsibilities toward them. His decisions affect the survival of each member of his group. Although a manager in his prior life, he is still not prepared for the overwhelming importance of his every utterance. Christopher takes this question as a starting point for some questions about the historic basis for the monarchy and nobility still practiced in England. After all, someone has to lead, and someone has to take responsibility for the group. If the group then looks upon this someone as special, doesn't that make him a sort of king? The kingship Christopher shows in "No Blade Of Grass" is a benign, fatherly sort, because John is a thoughtful man not much given to self-aggrandizement and indulgence. How easily this could have been different as shown in the character of the gun seller, Mr. Pirrie, who seems at first to be made for this new world. Brutal, unforgiving, decisive, Pirrie expresses no qualms about his actions, but does as he will. While he shows outward allegiance to John, he makes his own lieutenancy quite clear. As the best shot in the group, he proves very valuable, and is often responsible for their survival in fighting off other groups. His behavior, though, throughout the novel shows that his very decisiveness, as evidence of his lack of humane reservations, is finally the cause of his downfall. Also, having made himself indispensable to the group first, due to his cache of weapons and second, with the evidence of his skill with weapons, puts him outside of many of John's decisions. Reading the book one is often reminded of how lucky John is that Pirrie did not openly resist him.
None of John's transformation is lost on his wife and Christopher skillfully uses her as a sounding board from which to voice his opinions about royalty and sovereign right. Ann is quick to let John know she does not approve of the changes she sees in his personality, however minor they might appear to the reader. Perhaps this is a product of lingering fear resulting from the brutal rape of Ann and their teenage daughter Mary. Ann first notices John's newly developed condescending manner towards others, even their own son Davy. John persists in reassuring Ann that the way he is behaving is only temporary, that once they are safe in the valley things will be like they were before. Christopher is skillfully showing how unaware individuals are of the swift and subtle changes caused by disaster. Nevertheless, John's leadership of his band of followers, his hardening as it were, are going to become very necessary to gaining entrance into the valley and safty behind the barricade built and protected by the people who live there. Including John's brother David.
Another large social issue raised in this novel has to do with culturally acceptable forms of behavior, with morality. In the world that most of us are familiar with, morality is a country with ever-shifting borders. Conditional morality is the term used to describe the phenomena in which what's sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. "No Blade Of Grass" shows what might happen if all the walls formed by an accepted understanding of morality were knocked down all at once. Man, the noble savage could degenerate into simple savagery. In the novel, this happens in a very short period. As soon as it becomes clear that there are no police forces to turn to; looters, marauders, rapists, thieves take to the countryside. What inspires these people? Christopher makes it very clear that there is no rational thought behind this behavior in a scene where a man who has stolen a large quantity of precious baubles tries to carry them, dribbling them along behind him as he drops one here and one there like so many Hansel and Gretel bread crumbs. The message is clear, that definitions of value are dependent upon culture and worthless when that culture tumbles. In another sense, this is also true of individuals in this new world that the virus has created. When the group meets up with other groups asking for protection within their ranks, a decision has to be made of the value of each individual. A lawyer, in this situation, is judged by the same criterion as a cobbler; his value is based on his ability to survive and provide a benefit to the group as a whole. Not only is each individual assessed on a different scale, but the new morality says that individuals who will not add to the group's ability to survive will have to be left behind. Not everyone is worth saving in this new and unforgiving world; mercy is not an affordable commodity any longer. The care and concern we have for the weak and infirm become liabilities.
John Christopher's books do not answer all the questions which they raise. In this respect he asks his readers to take the trouble of thinking for themselves, of imagining the myriad possibilities of the universe. The tone throughout "No Blade Of Grass" is one of gentle inevitability, which reminds this reader of the quiet dignity shown by the characters in the Australian classic "On The Beach", (not accidentally a contemporary novel). The questions raised in each, the common theme of the destruction of the world as we know it, have still not been answered, four decades later. It's comforting to think, though, that these novels may lead the world to think about these issues at greater length, and that that process could help avert a tragedy like that portrayed here.
Earning three of the four possible stars in David Pringle's, "The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction (2nd Ed.)", Pringle calls Christopher's book "intelligent and engrossing." John Clute and Peter Nichols in "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" devote a column and a half to John Christopher going on to say he was clearly John Wyndhams', another British writer's, only rival. A quick search at Bibliofind (www.bibliofind.com) turned up 20 copies of "No Blade Of Grass" ranging from $5.00 to $50.00. Copies of this book may also be located under the British publication title, "The Death of Grass." Other books by John Christopher worth reading:
* Adult: The Year of the Comet (Planet in Peril-US)
* The World in Winter (The Long Winter-US)
* A Wrinkle in the Skin (The Ragged Edge-US)
* Pendulum (US)
* Juveniles: The Tripods Sequence (When the Tripods Came, The White Mountains, The City of Gold, Pool of Fire)
* The Sword of Spirits Trilogy (The Prince in Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands, The Sword of Spirits)
* The Fireball Trilogy (Fireball, New Found Land, Dragon Dance)
* The Guardians (which won the Guardian award for best children's book of the year)
* The Lotus Caves
* Other works: The Caves of Night
* The Long Voyage (The White Voyage-US)
* The Possessors
* The Little People