Friday, May 6, 2022

Book Review: The Death of Grass by John Christopher

by ISFDB

I admit that I probably would not have read this before my interest in the Poaceae.

I am an ardent science fiction reader, but this post-apocalyptic novel was published in 1956, and I tend not to read older SF. Nevertheless, once I started reading it, I found to my surprise that it was actually quite interesting, although some of the language and viewpoints of the characters were quite dated and made me cringe and roll my eyes.

The story involves the spread of a virus named Chung-Li, which devastates rice crops in China, causing mass starvation. Although confined at first to rice, the virus soon develops variants which attack all members of the grass family. Caught in the backdrop of this ecological catastrophe, a mild mannered British man named John and his family try to safely make it to his brother David, who has started growing potatoes in a farm that is sheltered in a well protected valley. On the way they pick up various other people who can help them, and John slowly transforms into a hardened survivor who will stop at nothing to protect his family.

The Chung-Li virus devastates rice crops

The author does a very good job of emphasizing the importance of the grass family to the very fabric of our lives. Not only does he show the disintegration of governments and societies when the virus expands worldwide, but at various points in the narrative, the characters note the disastrous consequences of the loss of grasses because these make up the vast majority of our food.

"Yes," John said, "wheat is a grass, too, isn’t it?"

"Wheat," David said, "and oats and barley and rye – not to mention fodder for the beasts."

In addition, the author is thoughtful enough to mention the scientific name of the grass family, and even goes so far as to throw in the taxonomic nomenclature of some grass  genera and tribes. 

Roger went on: "The appetite of the Chung-Li virus was for the tribe of Oryzae, of the family of Gramineae. Phase 5 is rather less discriminating. It thrives on all the Gramineae."

"Gramineae?"

Roger smiled, not very happily. "I’ve only picked up the jargon recently myself. Gramineae means grasses – all the grasses."

John thought of David. "We’ve been lucky."

"Grasses," he said, "that includes wheat."

"Wheat, oats, barley, rye, that’s a starter. Then meat, dairy foods, poultry. In a couple of years’ time we’ll be living on fish and chips – if we can get the fat to fry them in."

Wheat is also affected, by Bluemoose

The disappearance of grasses not only impacts the entire food chain that enables civilization, but it also impacts the surroundings, as noted by one of the protagonists:

‘They frightened me. I hadn’t understood properly before quite what a clean sweep the virus makes of a place. Automatically, you think of it as leaving some grass growing, if only a few tufts here and there. But it doesn’t leave anything. It’s only the grasses that have gone, of course, but it’s surprising to realize what a large amount of territory is covered with grasses of one kind or another.’

Although the author has done his botanical homework, he seemingly stumbles at certain points in the narrative. For example, as rationing starts to take its toll on the country, some children complain about the rationing of sweets.

"Potato-cakes,’"John said, "and the empty tin circulating along the tables for you all to have a sniff. Very nourishing too." 

Davey said: ‘Well, I don’t see why they’ve rationed sweets. You don’t get sweets out of grass, do you?’

But of course, most sugar is actually derived from sugarcane (Saccharumn officinarum), which is also a grass!

Overall, I found the novel interesting and entertaining, and the author does not shy away from describing the savagery of man when civilization collapses. In one of the Stephen King novelettes, the phrase "arc of descent" is used, and I think that phrase is quite apt in describing the way the protagonist in this book evolves from beginning to end. 

If you have the time and inclination, give it a go. An electronic version (kindle) is available from amazon.com, and probably from other booksellers worldwide.

Enjoy!

Dying maize/corn