The Death of Grass: Civilisation’s Sudden Collapse

In Truth Sister I’ve tried to depict a world where civilisation is being eroded slowly, and where there is still a chance of holding on to some of its structures. I don’t presume to compare TS with any of the following, but it does share this vision of gradual and adaptive change with The Declaration (Gemma Malley), The Children of Men (P D James) and The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Attwood).

Of course, there is plenty of dystopian fiction that jumps straight into the future, however blighted that future is: the classics include 1984 (George Orwell), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) and The Chrysalids (John Wyndham). There are plenty of modern examples, such as The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), Divergent (Veronica Roth) and – a personal favourite – Flawed (Cecilia Ahern).

But there’s another dystopian strand, in which disaster strikes quickly, and the world is changed overnight: Wells’ War of the Worlds is an obvious example. The Death of Grass, by John Christopher (Sam Youd), is one of these: all the world’s grass crops, including cereals, rice and pasture grasses, are succumbing to a blight that, within one growing season, leaves most of the world without food. The story follows a group of individuals who journey from London to the Lake District (where the protagonist, John Custance, knows his brother has been carefully preparing), with an underlying theme of the breakdown and change of customs and government. The change is rapid, and in a few days civilised people turn to tribalism and to murder.

The Death of Grass (called No Blade of Grass in the US) was published in the 1950s, and like Wyndham’s then-recent The Day of The Triffids, the influence of wartime structures and habits is apparent. There is an ease with which people slip into quasi-military roles that we would not see today. The story is told briefly and concisely, but it provides an salutary reminder of how thin the veneer of civilisation can be. Recommended read.

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