This week I have mostly been reading dystopian fiction; more specifically The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham and The Death of Grass by John Christopher. I read both novels about thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-teens, and seem to recall that I had borrowed The Death of Grass from the library purely because I liked the title.
If my fifteen year old self was reviewing the books, this post would be very different, as my opinion has completely reversed in the intervening decades. At the time, I was a big Wyndham fan and absolutely hated The Death of Grass. I refused to believe that England would so rapidly descend into barbarism in the event of a catastrophe. Now the opposite is true. Sometimes it seems that England has already descended into semi-barbarism since the 1950s, when the novels were written, and I know enough of world events to see that the collapse of society is entirely possible.
The Death of Grass is the more interesting and well written of the two novels and far more believable than The Day of the Triffids. Although it is set in an era of steam trains and the wireless, it seems very modern in its global outlook. At the start of the novel, the West decides to turn a blind eye and hope for the best as China’s rice crop is devastated by the Chung-li virus, resulting in famine and the death of millions. However, when the virus starts to mutate and attack Britain’s own cereal crops, even the very grass which makes us such a green and pleasant land, then the inhabitants start to panic; rationing is introduced and martial law eventually declared. Rumours circulate that the government plans to bomb its own major cities, in order to cull the majority of the population, and society disintegrates into tribalism, looting, rape and violence.
At one point, the population is adjured to call upon its reserves of moral fibre and strength of character, as recently displayed in the Second World War:
“If the country only shows The Dunkirk Spirit we can pull through.”
Of course, it does no such thing, and within days the main protagonist, John Custance, a middle class engineer and family man, is killing anyone who proves an impediment to his quest to escape to his brother’s farm; including shooting a woman in the face with a 12-bore shotgun.
It is a genuinely shocking and unnerving novel, and unlike The Day of the Triffids, which seems preachingly didactic and old fashioned, it could have been written in this decade, rather than half a century ago. Apart, that is, from the portrayal of women, which is decidedly pre-Feminist. Not that this is accidental – the author himself draws attention to the reduced status of women by having Custance’s wife, Ann, remark:
“Are we chattels again already?”
The point being, that in circumstances where humans are forced to fight for supremacy, it is their usefulness to the group which ensures their survival.
“He looked at the four women; only one of them was sufficiently youthful to stand a chance of surviving on sexual merits.”
This isn’t chauvinism on John Christopher’s part; he no doubt knew that there was a precedent for this in any tribal community. If you look at the organisation of Mongol society in the time of Genghis Khan, women vied for the attentions of the alpha male, because the best warriors would offer them and their children the most protection.
“We have to fight for things now… We have to fight to live.”
Ultimately, in The Death of Grass, it is the law of the gun which prevails and those who are willing to “murder for self-preservation” are the ones who come out on top.
If I took anything away from this novel, it was a deeper sense of the fragility of existence, the mutability of all the structures, organisations and trappings of society, and the idea that we should really consider what it is about our country and ourselves that we would want to hold on to.