The Death of Grass by John Christopher
This Death of Grass is hailed as a science fiction classic and judging by online reviews, beloved by many. But I have not disliked a book so vehemently for a very long time, and although I know this places me in the minority it is just an honest reaction to my recent reading of the book. I must stress that the reason I read it in the first place was due to having a genuine affection for dystopian fiction and that I genuinely believed that I would be reading one of the best the genre had to offer.
I am also fully aware that risks are taken - and that allowances need to be made - when reading books published more than fifty years ago but this is not the first time that I have been left bewildered by the tag 'classic' (David Brin's The Postman left me similarly mystified). But The Day of the Triffids and 1984 prove that books written around the same time can still read as well today as they did then, and remain just as pertinent.
The book’s synopsis is an intriguing one: A viral strain has attacked rice crops in East Asia, causing massive famine. Soon a mutation appears that infects the staple crops of West Asia and Europe, such as wheat and barley, threatening a famine engulfing the whole of the Old World, while Australasia and the Americas attempt to impose rigorous quarantine to exclude the virus. The novel follows the struggles of architect John Custance and his family as they make their way across an England that is rapidly descending into anarchy, hoping to reach the safety of John's brother's farm in an isolated Westmorland valley.
I had many issues with the book and from the first page it became obvious that the author could not be classed as a master of his craft. The descriptive narrative was okay, even being eloquent in places, but the dialogue was at best stilted, at worst atrocious. It is all "John said," "Roger said," and this resulted in it being flat and unrealistic. But the themes were interesting and the aforementioned descriptive prose good enough to keep me interested. But then society broke-down completely, not over the course of a few weeks but overnight. It became a kill-or-be-killed mantra and our mild-mannered architect and civil servant became cold-blooded and remorseless killers within the space of a few hours. The moment my uneasiness turned into full-blooded distaste was when our band of "heroes" gunned down a farmer and his wife because that "is just how it is now and it would have happened soon anyway" and they needed their supplies. If this wasn't bad enough they then took the now-deceased couple’s daughter, who they found upstairs, and married her off (not too unwillingly) to one of the killers.
It is always difficult to judge whether the misogyny in a book is an extension of the author’s own beliefs or just a product of his imagination but I became increasingly more uncomfortable with the book’s views on both women and class. Christopher’s female characters made me cringe - I don't think they are good enough to even be described as stereotypical. There is a passage in the book when a woman and female child are raped and how this was dealt with at the time and subsequently in conversations between our now Rambo-like male characters will always remain the most unpleasant moment in a unimaginably unpleasant book. Even now, weeks on, it still upsets me.
But these are only my own opinions so please, if you are thinking about reading this book, go on to goodreads - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/941731.The_Death_of_Grass - or Amazon - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Death-Grass-Penguin-Modern-Classics/dp/0141190175/ and read the positive reviews there.
I just want to reiterate that I picked up this book because I read extensively in the dystopian genre and want to read the very best it has to offer. Maybe I have simply become too sensitive and when female reviewers do not seem to be overly upset by the book's treatment of its female characters then why should a male reviewer like myself. But I found so much about it unpalatable, and I was constantly thinking about the author and just how many of the man’s own views this unpleasant book might echo.
There are a few reviews out there though that shared my experience, so I’ll end this review with them:
“This was not good. This was, in fact, dreadful. The writing was crap, the characters were all unlikable, it was racist and misogynist, and the plot was incredibly boring. That's right, a book about people trying to survive an apocalypse was boring. So, I guess, good job on that, John Christopher. You wrote a shitty, boring book about an apocalypse, which is kind of difficult to do. I think what makes me the most angry about this book is that there are plenty of ways to write about how thin the veneer of civilization is and how quickly man would turn to monster in the event of a world-wide food shortage and facing imminent starvation. There are plenty of ways to show a person making that descent. And everyone told me this book was a classic so I was really excited to read it! And he managed to take all of those interesting things and suck all of the interesting out of them to make it a dry, boring, incredibly shitty book. It could have been so good. And it just wasn't.”
“The problem is Death of Grass isn’t very well written. The early chapters are one big info dump and the protagonists seemed all too willing (at least to me) to turn to savagery when the chips are down. No hesitation, no second thoughts. It’s a slim novel with just under 200 pages and it’s a gripping read but some patience may be required to go through the 1950s clunky dialogue.”
“The population of Britain, a country that has survived with its fortitude through 2 world wars and food rationing, upon learning they might have to live on a diet of potatoes, turns savage. I can't praise the actual writing of the story enough. I wanted to read to the end. But the storyline is utter pants with horribly one-dimensional women, who are either caricatures of tarts, housewives or idiot girls. And men who all appear to be either reactionary cuckolds or ineffectual megalomaniacs. I don't think I ever want to read this again.”
“I bought this book on a recommendation and now regret it. The premise of the story is a good one, and certainly one you could see happening today. What really grated for me was the incredibly insulting depiction of all the female characters. That just prevented it from being the kind of science fiction which is timeless. I know it's 'of its time' but its not easy to have all female characters reduced to sexual currency nor to read jokes made about child rape."
So please, I implore you. If you are looking for one of the finest novels in this genre then please, please read Cormac McCarthy's The Road and not this contemptible piece of purported 'classic science fiction'.
This The Death of Grass book review was written by Floresiensis
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The Death of Grass reader reviews
Jake from UK
I saw this book a while ago. It's old, from the 50s - 1956 exactly. I thought the writing would be quite dated and quite reserved. It wasn't. It actually had quite a violent and gritty edge to it, which I wasn't expecting from this period that glorified WW2 in films showcasing how fantastic we British are, and how we just shrugged it all off with a stiff upper lip and a cup of tea. It's a very short book, but very much to the point. It's also a good look at the British attitude, which may be more of an attitude of the 50s, but that same attitude is very much found amongst the political elite. Imagine the UK parliament trying to deal with an apocalyptic-scale catastrophe when they can't even figure out what Brexit is. It's not my favourite post-apocalyptic subgenre, which concentrates on the rebuilding of society. It's more about the collapse of towns and cities and of society as it happens, and the fact it's written in the 50s gives a great insight into how John Christopher and his countrymen at the time, may have secretly perceived the world to come. Perhaps the male character in this books show different shades to us as men at the time, albiet from a 50s mentality: the men are Rambo-esque and resort to savagery without much hesitation. They're also sexist which upsets some readers. Do you think if the world and society is collapsing that some alpha-male survival primitivism isn't going to take over? That's what happens when you destroy that which makes us human. We resort to being the animals that we fundamentally are. The same characters of his, as this book is set in the 50s, were also in WW2. Even those WW2 films celebrating the war effort try to mask the violence and savegery that no likely took place, but it's about survival. Even the most reserved 1950s British gentlemen is going to strangle you with his bare hands if its your life over his and his family's. I think it's quite reflective of how a society can collapse and how quickly we can resort to violence.
Mary from UK
If I could give a zero, I would do. I also love dystopian fiction and read this because it’s meant to be a classic. I have no idea why: it’s dull; the timeframe in which everything falls apart (about 24 hours) is ludicrous; the portrayal and use of female characters actually enraged me - the author clearly dislikes them (see Floresiensis’s review, which perfectly sets out my feelings), they are good for domestic tasks and rape only. AVOID.
Thomas from UK
This is a deeply unpleasant book which seems to glorify brutality. It calls into question whether the author had psychopathic tendencies which he sublimated by writing ( very badly incidentally ) the horrid little tome. Quite how it has achieved classic status - except as an example of how not to write books in this genre - is beyond belief. Avoid at all costs - reading it leaves on feeling dirty.
Christopher from England
I loved reading books by John Christopher when I was a boy. With my encouragement my sons read his Tripods trilogy and loved it. So I bought this one for my teenage son to read not realising it was an adult book. Any idea I had of handing it over to him to read was soon dispelled by the very serious themes and having now finished it I will certainly not be giving it to him or anyone else to read. I too am a fan of dystopian fiction but the characters descended into immorality too quickly. Reading the later chapters made me very unhappy at the bleak, negative and dreadful tale. I do not accept that society could have disintegrated so quickly and we were expected to sympathise with a character who made terrible, terrible decisions.
Andy from UK
This book is misogynistic, racist, classicist and very badly written. Why has this been revived as a modern classic by Penguin? Surely it should have been left to rot. It is a nasty book and I'm not a person who is easily offended. Recommend do not bother reading this rubbish as it can get in your head ad be upsetting.
4.3/10 from 6 reviews
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