Thursday, 20 February 2014

John Christopher's The Death of Grass

John Christopher (1922 - 2012) was a British science fiction author from Lancashire, credited with about 70 novels, written under either his real name (Christopher Samuel Youd) or his eight pseudonyms. Many of his novels are (post-)apocalyptic, following the world-in-ruins pattern; those after 1966 were aimed largely at adolescents. Popular during the 1950s and 1960s, he later fell out of favour and his books are now mostly out of print. The Death of Grass, first published in 1957, was loosely adapted to film in 1970 and re-published by Penguin Books in 2009.
John Christopher's The Death of Grass (2009; 1957) 
The premise is that an unconquerable, mutant plant virus (Chung-Li) kills off all grass speciesaround the world. This means not just lawn grass, but also all forage grasses and cereal grain crops, on which both animals and humans depend. The disappearance of grasses decimates the global food supply within months, sowing death by starvation on an apocalyptic scale. The virus originates in China and inexorably moves across Asia, towards Europe, and, ultimately, the United Kingdom, where the narrative unfolds.

John Custance, the main character, is an architect, based in London. His brother, David, is a stolid farmer, who lives in an enclosed valley in Westmorland (now Cumbria). When the virus first breaks, there is, as expected, complacency: China is distant and, as horrible as the famine there may seem, there is in the West every confidence that an anti-virus would be found in good time. Said anti-virus proves elusive, of course, and as its ravages grow nearer, Western leaders begin to tremble. Emergency measures are enacted, rationing is imposed, and the United States begins hoarding. Eventually, however, the United Kingdom finds itself bald, without food or farm animals, and left in the lurch by the United States, whose government finally halts all food aid, having decided, once a last-ditch effort at developing an anti-virus fails, to put the survival of its own citizens before that of other nations.

David Custance, thinking it better to be safe than sorry, and sceptical of government assurances (which eventually prove deliberate lies), is by this time prepared, having re-purposed his fields for the cultivation of beets and potatoes, built up stores, and erected fortifications to defend the narrow pass offering the sole access point to his valley, which is otherwise surrounded on all sides by impenetrable natural defences. His brother John, who was initially reluctant to accept David’s invitation to join him with his family at the Westmorland farm, finally, at the eleventh hour and fifty-nine minutes, decides to make a dash for the valley, hundreds of miles North of his London home: his friend Roger Buckley, a senior civil servant with a pipeline to the upper echelons of government, has warned him with only hours to spare that the game was up and that the government, who had yet to tell its citizens about the exhaustion of food supplies and the impossibility of stopping the Chung-Li virus, had decided to vaporise 60% of the population by nuking all major cities in order to improve the chances of survival for the rest.

The plan is for John and Roger to drive North as quickly as possible, with their families and essential victuals and possessions. Soon, they are met with reverses, which result in the two friends’ returning briefly to London in order to acquire now essential guns and ammunition. There they recruit Pirrie, the cynical, cold-blooded sexagenarian gun shop owner who soon proves an indispensable asset, particularly to John, by now the party’s leader. Not far from London, Marxists—although they are not explicitly so designated—stage a revolution, overthrowing the government and seizing control of the BBC, through which they inform the public about the reality of the food situation as well as about the deposed government’s secret nuclear plot. Foolishly, they expect people to carry on business as usual and ask the air force please not to nuke the cities; inevitably, there is mass panic, and millions of city-dwellers all over Britain begin their own mad rush to evacuate themselves into the countryside (where there is likely to be at least some food). Thus, law and order instantly collapse. And John and company instantly realise that the starving and desperate hordes are now only one or two hours behind them.

The race is on.

Needless to say that their journey is plagued with setbacks. And when things get bad, they then get worse, only then to get even worse, relentlessly gloomier, nastier, and more desperate. John Christopher keeps up the suspense and the pages turning as we follow John’s party on its Northward journey through the increasingly dangerous countryside. Although most of the prose consists of action and dialogues, one’s mind is filled with images of dark and deserted lanes, hemmed in by hedges and bare ditches, winding under a general atmosphere of lurking menace and impending—and, later, actual and ever more naked—human rapacity.

The novel traces two simultaneous processes: on the one hand, there is civilised society’s decomposition and descent into barbarism, where rapacity, brutal force, ruthlessness, selfishness, opportunism, mistrust, and a thoroughly cynical realism are the only guarantees for survival; and, on the other hand, there is John’s transformation from educated urbanite into a cold, hard, pitiless leader of men, and, from there, gradually into a feudal lord. The latter part we do not get to see, but it is hinted at, and the suggestion is made that the initial post-democratic chaos and barbarism would eventually lead to the re-emergence of an authoritarian, masculine, feudal society, with a class of farmer-warriors offering military service in exchange for protection. Indeed, a persistent message throughout the novel is that pity, compassion, and liberal democracy are luxuries that are sustainable only where there is a steady income and food and resources to spare. Even John’s stubborn illusion of a return to normal life once in the safety of David’s stronghold in Westmorland is shattered in the end. There is, inevitably, an effort to conclude the novel on a high note, in the last paragraph, on the final line, but, in a novel where what is won is won through harsh dictatorial authority and merciless killing and stealing, from guilty and innocent alike, this feels like an afterthought, added for feel-good commercial purposes. We know that, in reality, such a world would have changed irreversibly, and would begin anew on premises entirely different from today’s.

In an interview given a few years a back, John Christopher claimed that he had no moral programme. Yet we can glimpse in this novel an internally consistent network of auxiliary themes. One is the value of realist foresight: while the Chung-Li virus sweeps across the Earth, with the exception of David Custance nobody prepares; all, including initially his brother John, carry on as normal, putting their faith in technology and the government. David secures his own survival by not taking anything for granted—not technology, not progress, not the trustworthiness of the government, not even human decency; instead, he plans well ahead, not caring to be called a doom-obsessed kook who might eventually be proven wrong.

This theme is linked to another: responsibility. John is transformed not just by the evolving situation, but by his assuming responsibility as leader of a party—responsibility to lead its members into safety and keep them alive, making whatever difficult decisions are necessary along the way, even if they are unpopular. Indeed, his status in the eyes of family and friends is elevated when he eventually dispenses with all vestigial democratic methods and asserts his dictatorial rule: his wife, formerly humanitarian, stops complaining; his children, formerly ungovernable, discover respect; his friend Roger, formerly full of bluster and bravado, fades away, becoming a dutiful vassal, two steps removed from dictator John once rifle-wielding Pirrie establishes his usefulness through marksmanship and knowledge of human nature. Along with responsibility, however, comes a certain loss of freedom: the freedom that John takes away from his charges, and the freedom that he loses by virtue of his duties towards them. And then there is, of course, the loneliness of the leader: as John hardens and grows into this new role, he is progressively alienated from his wife, his children, and his best friend. Intimacy is incompatible with authority.

This theme of responsibility is linked to yet another: the importance of honour and glory. There comes a point in the story where John, now standing before his brother’s stronghold, is faced with three choices: take advantage of familial bonds and smuggle himself and his family to safety behind the fortified valley, double-crossing his vassals and abandoning them to certain death outside; turn around and try to find some other place in which to survive; or fight his brother and conquer the valley. The first option is dishonourable and the second inglorious—both would mean betraying his troops, to whom he has promised safety in exchange for service; which leaves the third option. It means murder, this time of people he grew up with, but John deems this easier to live with than dishonour or disgrace. His wife Ann does not understand this, attracted to the first option, but John remains firm. Getting in by the easiest available means is not enough, even in a cutthroat world of pillage and murder.

A further theme is anti-feminism—which should not to be confused with being anti-woman, as some feminists would have people believe. The women in the novel are strong, but they also have distinct, well-defined, and complementary rôles in relation to the male characters, and they are generally submissive, even if at times reluctantly. The fact is that, for the author, while they represent the civilisational side of man, they depend on their male counterparts—the killer apes—for survival: in the novel, an unprotected female is not deemed likely to survive beyond a day. John Christopher was influenced by a theory, advanced by Robert Ardrey in The Territorial Imperative, that man was ‘descended from a race of killer apes, who wiped out a race of less belligerent but more civilised anthropoids.’ Christopher believes that the two should interbreed, and that women benefited from the presence of (masculine) men, ‘a strong right arm to help defend them both.’ Such thinking, so archaic and reactionary vis-à-vis modern egalitarian sensibilities, inevitably led to feminist uproar when it was articulated in another novel, Dom and Va, in 1973.

Then, of course, there is the theme already alluded to at various points in this review: the fragility of democratic government, and its inability to cope with extraordinary events. One cannot but think of Carl Schmitt’s state of exception. The democracies in the novel sustain themselves either through criminal deception, which leads to systemic collapse once it is uncovered, or, as is the case with the fictional United States, through nationalist isolationism—the deprecation of all humanistic sentiment and the adoption of a country-wide bunker strategy, complete with vast stores and heavy defences. One does wonder, however, what is likely to happen should stores run out before an anti-virus, or a virus-resistant grass, is developed. The United States of 1957 may have followed Europe in its return to feudalism, following the disappearance of the nation state. The United States of today may descend into barbarism, with isolated pockets of tyranny, as in the 2010 film, the Book of Eli, or the 1997 film, The Postman.

Back in our world, we might not be facing an apocalyptic plant virus, but an earnest minority—for the most part comprising palæolibertarians (nostalgic, socially conservative classical liberals) in the United States, but also anti-liberal and even less optimistic writers like Guillaume Faye and Piero San Giorgio—think our current system is unsustainable and therefore doomed. Since the financial crisis of 2008, a slew of apocalyptic prepper / survivalist novels have been published, often involving financial meltdown or EMP attack scenarios. The Death of Grass seems an early exponent of what is now a tradition, preceding even Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which involved a large comet colliding with the Earth. In almost all cases there is an element of wishful thinking, truculence, even revanchism, for the authors have the system that they obviously despise—and has typically pushed them to the margins—collapse in the worst possible way (it’s always a hard collapse), wiping out the infuriatingly complacent and deluded sceptic alike, and the ones left in charge—at least on the side of good—are always characters who think like them. Still, their scenarios are not entirely fantastical, since they have occurred before, and neither should their criticisms be dismissed out of hand, for the reasons are real.
 
Correct in their suppositions or not, it is worth considering that no system is eternal, and sometimes it is merely a convergence of disruptive events, resulting from realignments or shifts in ways of seeing and doing that have gradually been taking place under the surface over a period of time that precipitates the collapse of a system. That collapse, needs not be sudden: collapses can be slow, soft, undulated, or long deferred.
Neither needs it be triggered by material conditions: collapses can be axiological, metaphysical, or of morale. And neither needs it be final: when a system collapses, often it either has already been replaced by a more credible alternative, or it clears the decks for the emergence of a new one. But the consensus in all cases is that democracy is a luxury, which is taken for granted, and that a catastrophic disruption brings about a necessary return to authoritarianism. And there may be some truth in this: in Darwinism, Dominance, and Democracy, Somit and Peterson show that the overwhelming majority of human societies throughout history have been authoritarian. Conditions of material abundance, they argue, together with human indoctrinability, are what from time to time make possible the emergence of democracies.

Christopher’s aim is not, however, to flatter the vanity of preppers, survivalists, and anti-democrats; his aim, he once stated, was simply to explore what would likely happen given a catastrophic scenario. Readers in the above categories will no doubt be pleased by what he envisioned, and find in it further confirmation of their conclusions; while those who would rather have faith in the stability of our existing system and in the ability of democratic governments to deal with a catastrophic disruption will see this as nothing more than entertainment.

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