Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.
By definition, post-apocalyptic novels transpire after some sort of global disaster. This temporal perspective grants authors a bulwark behind which to build an exotic, busted-up setting and provides a buffer for readers against the immediate horrors of societal collapse. But when a writer changes that post into a pre, both barriers disappear, and the genre's shape shifts dramatically. That's exactly what John Christopher did in his first successful book The Death of Grass (published as No Blade of Grass in the United States).
John Custance never envied the mountain-bounded farmland his brother David had inherited from their grandfather. A city dweller by preference and architect by trade, he liked London just fine. Then the Chung-Li virus appeared, a rice blight that decimated Asia, and David unexpectedly offered for John to move his family out to his land where they would be safe. Surely an overreaction, John reasoned. Chung-Li only attacked rice, after all, hardly a staple for Britons. Or it only attacked rice until a mutation give it an appetite for grass -- every single sort of grass. Frightening, yes, but the government was working on a counter-virus, and that would surely set things straight. Yet when that stratagem fails outright and the United Kingdom awakes to the idea of a world without oats, rye, barley or wheat, John finds his thinking has changed. His brother's little farm, freshly planted with potatoes and beets, has begun to look like his only hope.
Christopher has been accused of writing cozy catastrophes, neat and tidy end-of-the-world scenarios with no real bite. But while The Death of Grass may not match Comarc McCarthy's The Road for brutality, it certainly doesn't shy away from nasty subject matter. Starvation, cannibalism, nuclear annihilation, murder and rape all make appearances, but fortunately the worst offenses get handled with a very light touch and the rest are wrapped in dry British wit. "I'm as slack as the rest of you," one of John's friends concludes as news of the mutation spreads. "I should be getting into training by learning unarmed combat and the best way to slice the human body into its constituent joints for roasting. As it is, I just sit around." If the novel stumbles, it's in its depiction of female characters (many of whom are almost interchangeable) and its ducking of big thematic questions. As John journeys toward the farm and his coterie swells into a clan, he begins to change from democratic urbanite into feudal warlord, seizing sustenance by the strength of his arm. The slow stripping away of socialization practically begs for authorial commentary, but Christopher seems satisfied with simply acknowledging the possibilty and moving on. A disappointment in an otherwise excellent novel.
(Picture: CC 2008 by jenny downing (r&r))