The Death of Grass by John Christopher

John Christopher’s Death of Grass (published 1956) came out five years after John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Both are about how the precariousness of modern life can so easily give way to a tooth-and-claw battle for survival when civilisation breaks down. Christopher’s chosen disaster — a virus that destroys all grass-related plants, including wheat, rye, barley, oats and rice, and which soon threatens the world with starvation — isn’t as instantaneous as Wyndham’s, but that’s only to give its English characters a brief chance to look on in combined pity and superiority as China, where the virus originates, descends into chaos. As the virus spreads, the Brits tighten their belts and roll their eyes at the thought of going back to war-time rationing, sure they’ll handle the situation with the same dignity:

“Yet again,” a correspondent wrote to the Daily Telegraph, “it falls to the British peoples to set an example to the world in the staunch and steadfast bearing of their misfortunes. Things may grow darker yet, but that patience and fortitude is something we know will not fail.”

But when our hero, John Custance, learns the government’s latest efforts to combat the virus aren’t working, he, his family, and a small but growing band of taggers-along, head for his brother’s farm in the north. Situated in a narrow-entranced valley, it should be easy to defend as the country goes feral — as long as they can get there in one piece.

They certainly can’t do so peacefully. Leaving London, they’re faced with a military roadblock. By this point, Custance is convinced the government are planning to drop hydrogen bombs on the major cities, including London, to bring the population down to the sort of levels that can be maintained with new levels of food production, so he knows it’s a matter of kill or be killed. This close to WWII, Custance is the sort of man who has had some experience of this:

He brought the rifle up and tried to hold it steady. At any fraction of a second, he must crook his finger and kill this man, unknown, innocent. He had killed in the war, but never from such close range, and never a fellow-countryman. Sweat seemed to stream on his forehead; he was afraid of it blinding his eyes, but dared not risk disturbing his aim to wipe it off. Clay-pipes at a fairground, he thought – a clay-pipe that must be shattered, for Ann, for Mary and Davey. His throat was dry.

The most significant addition to Custance’s group is Pirrie, an older man whom they encounter when they try to first buy, then rob, guns for their trip up north. After the robbery fails, they explain what they know and Pirrie agrees to provide them with guns in exchange for him and his wife being able to come along. He proves to be a crack shot, and soon becomes their most valuable asset. He is also quite ready to take advantage of the new lawlessness to his own advantage — not to the point of betraying the group, but certainly in getting his own, sometimes brutal, way. His pragmatism quickly becomes the embodiment of what this new world is going to be like. John Custance comes to rely on, and trust him, more and more.

There’s an uneasy air of compliance, in the book, in Custance’s shift from civilised man to survivalist leader. Perhaps because we started it off by taking his side — he was the reasonably-sounding, civilised one in the early chapters, as opposed to his friend Roger’s pessimism — but as we rarely get to see inside his head, we don’t witness the inner moments when he gives in to the way the world is going to be. We just see his actions getting darker and darker. At times it’s hard to tell if Custance is taking a certain pride, or grim satisfaction when, for instance, he finds his children being that much more obedient to him — and the women too — now he’s taken on the role of leader of a band of survivalists.

So, it’s an uneasy book. But, of course, it’s meant to be.

Day of the Triffids was far more about the ecological disaster, the loneliness of the survivors, and the many different types of challenges they’d have to face in order to survive. Although it addresses the same sort of moral issues as Christopher’s book, Christopher’s is more wholly, and brutally, about the moral issues alone. In Death of Grass, there’s no real concern for the idea of trying to preserve civilisation, or mourning its loss, just a cold looking on as it dies. As Roger says, “We’re in a new era… Or a very old one…” and everyone seems quite happy, after an initial inner tussle, to take that as read and join in:

“It’s force that counts now. Anybody who doesn’t understand that has got as much chance as a rabbit in a cage full of ferrets.”

It’s easy to see Christopher’s characters as the sort Wyndham’s might meet, try to talk to, and quickly need to escape from. Wyndham had no illusions about the depths human beings could sink to, but he did believe that some might (successfully) choose not to sink all the way — which is, after all, the basis of civilisation. Christopher’s book doesn’t really debate the point. The pragmatists are the most eloquent, and they are the ones with the guns. They survive, but we do, at the end, get to see some of the cost of that survival. (It should also be said that Christopher’s characters suffer more than Wyndham’s. Not only do they kill others, but two of the women are, early on, kidnapped and raped, something that Wyndham would never have included in a book. It’s not dwelt upon, but it certainly sets a grim tone for the mental state the group falls into.)

There was a 1970 film adaptation, named No Blade of Grass (after the US retitling of the novel), which is mostly faithful, and fits in neatly with the 70s fascination with ecological disasters and survival scenarios. The smaller cast changes the dynamics of the group, even improving on Christopher’s plot at one point, when Pirrie (here a younger rather than an older man) chooses Custance’s daughter Mary to replace his wife (instead of, in the book, another young woman picked up on the way), which makes Custance’s acquiescence all the more damning — or it would, if only Custance (played by Nigel Davenport) wasn’t so stolid and matter-of-fact throughout the film. The whole mood of the film really depends on how Custance is portrayed, and Davenport doesn’t bring the slightest hint of moral doubt to the role. The group might as well be out for a country stroll, for all the horrors (made all the more horrific by being depicted in lurid 70s fashion) they meet with, and perpetrate. (It doesn’t help that, with his eyepatch, jacket, and moustache, he’s the mirror image of Julian Barrett’s 80s action-star parody Mindhorn.) Plus, there’s a rather silly stand-off near the end with a motorcycle gang, who seem to be there simply to use up the film’s stunt budget. You can see its trailer at Trailers from Hell.

Nigel Davenport’s Custance, Julian Barrett’s Mindhorn

The Crystal World by J G Ballard

The Crystal World coverJ G Ballard’s fourth novel, The Crystal World, seems to have grown like a crystal. Before the novel (published 1966), there was the novella “Equinox” (in two parts in New Worlds between June and August 1964), and before the novella there was the short story “The Illuminated Man” (in F&SF, May 1964), and at the very start of the short story — topping and tailing it, in fact, as it’s repeated at the end — is a brief, italicised paragraph that’s like the seed-crystal of all that follows, a description of a Surrealist painting that never was:

“By day fantastic birds flew through the petrified forests, and jewelled alligators glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline rivers. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown…”

In the novel (where this paragraph appears in the final chapter), the alligators are now crocodiles, as the location has shifted from Florida to a more Heart of Darkness-ish “isolated corner of the Cameroon Republic”, but the main story is the same. The protagonist, Dr Sanders (a first-person narrator named James B—— in the story) finds himself at one of several points on the Earth which are being transformed by the “Hubble Effect”:

“…an actual proliferation of the sub-atomic identity of all matter. It’s as if a sequence of displaced but identical images of the same object were being produced by refraction through a prism, but with the element of time replacing the role of light.”

The upshot is that everything is becoming encased in (or turned into) crystal, and the crystallisation is spreading in waves that pulse through the affected zones, turning rivers into roads of glass, and roads into pathways furred with foot-high crystal spurs. Everything, from the vegetation to the buildings to the water is becoming a prismatic version of itself, and that includes the animals and people. It’s when describing this effect — when painting it before our eyes in sparkling, rainbowed light — that Ballard’s writing is at its precise, vivid, hallucinogenic best:

“From the elbow to the finger-tips it was enclosed by — or more precisely had effloresced into — a mass of translucent crystals, through which the prismatic outlines of the hand and fingers could be seen in a dozen multi-coloured reflections. This huge jewelled gauntlet, like the coronation armour of a Spanish conquistador, was drying in the sun, its crystals beginning to emit a hard vivid light.”

The Crystal World, another coverTime has crystallised my own view of The Crystal World. On a first reading I found it to have passages of beautiful, precise poetry punctuating (after a nicely-paced moody beginning) an otherwise dull story. A recent re-read has only confirmed me in this opinion. The moments that stand out are like shards of the original short story — they’re all in “The Illuminated Man”, often in the same words: the helicopter that slews then crashes as it tries to fly when the Hubble Effect has taken hold of its rotor blades, the half-vitrified crocodile suddenly whipping into life from its bed in a solidified river. But these intensely imagined, visually shocking moments speckle a story of mostly rather unconvincing, lacklustre characters who seem to be standing around in the presence of all this cathedral-like jewelled wonder waiting for the Ballardian spark to wake their inner worlds. Only, it never happens. Ballard provides us with a pair of love triangles — the protagonist Sanders, Suzanne Clair & Max Clair, and Ventress, Thorensen & Serena — both centred around a male rivalry for a dying woman, though this doubling only waters the effect of the same single-triangle situation in the original short story, which itself only seemed to be pointing out how meaningless such human motives as love and revenge are in contrast to the time-defying crystallisation process. Why, then, go to the bother of actually duplicating this meaningless situation, particularly when neither, ultimately, resolves in any interesting way?

The Crystal World, Max Ernst coverThe protagonist Sanders is much less inwardly connected to the catastrophe when compared to, say, Kerans of (my favourite Ballard novel) The Drowned World. I can’t help feeling that in writing The Crystal World, Ballard was perhaps stuck in the formula of his previous two books, and while his inventiveness as it related to the transformed landscape had blossomed — even, effloresced — he had less to say about the human side of the equation. He even, at one point, has his main character discuss the possible themes of the very novel he’s in, as Sanders starts going on about the profusion of doubles in a plot Ballard seems to be struggling to get some meaning out of. It results in some very un-Ballardian psychological truisms (“Of course there’s a dark side to the psyche, and I suppose all one can do is find the other face and try to reconcile the two — it’s happening out there in the forest”, and “Each of us has something we can’t bear to be reminded of.”). But the sheer audacity, strangeness, and poetry of the fantastic idea at the heart of the novel conquers, in the end, and those few scattered jewels of Ballardian poetry that break through the tedium of the novel’s unconvincing characters make it all worthwhile. (Though I can’t help feeling that, apart from the moody equinoctial darkness of the opening chapter, which I love, you’d be better off reading “The Illuminated Man”.)

The feeling that Ballard was tiring of his initial formula and on the verge of an artistic breakthrough is perhaps confirmed by what came next: as well as his almost continuous outpouring of short stories at the time, there was, a few years later, a quantum leap to a very different type of fiction with the “condensed novels” of The Atrocity Exhibition, and then Crash. (A novel very much like The Crystal World, in that it comes to life entirely through its intense, rather inhuman poetry, rather than its short story’s worth of story.)

The novel does, though, at least touch on a human meaning behind the Hubble Effect:

“The beauty of the spectacle had turned the keys of memory, and a thousand images of childhood, forgotten for nearly forty years, filled his mind, recalling the paradisal world when everything seemed illuminated by that prismatic light…”


“…this illuminated forest in some way reflects an earlier period of our lives, perhaps an archaic memory we are born with of some ancestral paradise where the unity of time and space is the signature of every leaf and flower.”

Which makes me realise how much the catastrophes in catastrophe novels are all about a need to halt time, to end the forward rush of modernity and pause, perhaps regress, to something a little more humanly manageable. Perhaps, in this, Ballard’s Crystal World is the ultimate expression of the SF catastrophe.

The Crystal World also, perhaps, contains a hint of autobiography:

“It seems to me, Max, that the whole profession of medicine may have been superseded — I don’t think the simple distinction between life and death has much meaning now.”

Ballard spent a year studying as a doctor (his descriptions, in Miracles of Life, of his time dissecting cadavers in anatomy classes easily equals the poetry of The Crystal World’s more jewelled moments), but gave up, perhaps because of a very similar realisation: that it all meant nothing compared to the immensities to be explored in his own imagination — visions like the life-and-death-annulling crystallisation of the world — which were themselves attempts to resolve the very intense plunge into catastrophe, violence and upheaval of his teen years in WWII China. Like Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out Of Space” — a very similar story in some ways — The Crystal World could well be the purest expression of what its author was aiming at:

“…the response to light is a response to all the possibilities of life itself.”

Whatever its faults, The Crystal World is still an amazing piece of fiction for the sheer strangeness of its vision alone.

The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

Just as The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes make a neat pairing as a couple of catastrophe novels, Wyndham’s next two books, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos, are both about an evolutionary leap in the younger generation that threatens to usurp “normal” humankind. A lot of people say The Chrysalids is Wyndham’s best novel, but I prefer Midwich. In it, Wyndham’s writerly craft has progressed along several lines to a point of mild perfection. Those who accuse him of merely writing “Cosy Catastrophes” may feel justified in damning him for his “analgesic” style, but it’s precisely his urbane, mildly comic tone that allows him to smuggle in a very dark tale addressing some uncomfortable issues.

The Chrysalids by John WyndhamThe Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos are almost shadow images of one another. The Chrysalids, set in a post-nuclear-holocaust future, is about a human society struggling to re-establish itself in the remnants of a radiation-scarred world. A rigid religious dogma protects it from all mutations whether plant, animal or human: anything which doesn’t conform to its scripture of normality is destroyed. Into this world comes an invisible mutation, a handful of children who are telepathically linked. But if these children let their new ability be known, their own parents will banish them to the Badlands, if not hunt them down and kill them. The Midwich Cuckoos, on the other hand, is set in the author’s own era, when the (literally) sleepy English village of Midwich finds itself visited by a plague of pregnancies, resulting in the birth of about sixty alien children, all (again) telepathically linked, but this time able to coerce “normal” humans into doing whatever they will them to do — and therefore, though a minority in numbers, this time the mutations/aliens are in the position of power. Also — and again in contrast to The Chrysalids, which is narrated by one of the telepathic children — from the point of view of Midwich’s narrator, it is the mutations/aliens who are the “others”, the enemy.

The Midwich CuckoosMidwich works, for me, in large part because of its style. Throughout his previous books, Wyndham used a first-person narrator to present his tales of “logical fantasy”, allowing him to humanise his essentially idea-led tales, while distancing his narrator from the wilder implications of those ideas (intelligent plants, invaders from another planet). The disadvantage of having a narrator, though, is that world-changing catastrophes require the relation of a lot of world-wide events, so Wyndham’s narrator gets stuck reporting a lot of things outside his immediate experience, with the result that things get told of rather than shown. This isn’t a problem in Triffids, which is mostly immediate action, but it makes Kraken a very un-involving novel, for me. In The Midwich Cuckoos, though, Wyndham strikes on two ideas that allow him to describe his incipient, worldwide catastrophe entirely in immediate terms: he first of all shrinks “the world” to the bounds of an English village, with only suggestions of similar things going on in other countries, and secondly, he gives his narrator licence to describe all the scenes at which he isn’t actually present as though he were, rather than the stricter approach of Kraken, where everything not witnessed by the narrator is reported secondhand.

Another Wyndham strand that achieves a sort of culmination in Midwich is the prophet/theoretician character he employs in all his novels (Coker in Triffids, Bocker in Kraken, Uncle Axel in The Chrysalids). This is the person who gets to speculate (always accurately) on the exact nature of the menace — the triffids’ intelligence, the fact that there is an alien invasion going on in Kraken — and also to indulge in a little thematic lecturing about the precariousness of man’s position atop a Godless evolutionary tree. In Midwich, Wyndham finds his perfect prophet/theoretician in Gordon Zellaby, a rather dufferish, doddery old writer, whose genial air of absent-minded reasonableness puts the reader off their guard, giving him complete licence to lecture at will:

“But, my dear fellow, if one is not blinded by a sense of indispensability, one must take it that we, like the other lords of creation before us, will one day be replaced. There are two ways in which it can happen: either through ourselves, by our self-destruction, or by the incursion of some species which we lack the equipment to subdue. Well, here we are now, face to face with a superior will and mind. And what are we able to bring against it?”

(Zellaby seems to be a sort of idealised version of Wyndham himself. Zellaby says he was “Too young for one war, tethered to a desk in the Ministry of Information in the next.” Wyndham grew up during WWI, and as a result thought of that as “his” war, meaning he felt oddly dislocated when he found himself serving in WWII (not his war), as a temporary Civil Servant in Censorship, and later with the Royal Corps of Signals in a cipher office.)

The Midwich Cuckoos coverFor most of the novel, The Midwich Cuckoos reads like a light, and very English, comedy about a rather awkward social problem — an entire village’s worth of women finding themselves unaccountably and simultaneously pregnant, with the result that certain types (a pair of live-together spinsters, a wife rumoured to be carrying on with another man, an engaged but not-yet-married couple) have some serious explaining to do. But as the novel progresses, though it keeps the same civilised, faintly amused & bemused tone, the story becomes steadily darker. The children hit out at those who threaten or accidentally hurt them. Early on, a woman is found repeatedly, and helplessly, sticking herself with a safety pin because she unintentionally pricked her golden-eyed baby; later, a man is forced to drive his car into a wall because he knocked into one of the children; later still, the village men are forced to fight each other, and everyone is telepathically forbidden from leaving the village.

The Village of the Damned (1960)

By this point, Wyndham’s “comforting” narrative tone is totally at odds with the story he’s telling. It all reads so urbane and cosy, but this is a very nasty sort of war, between parents and children — and therefore a war that hits at the most fundamental note of what binds a society together. But as the children explain, there is a “biological obligation” at the heart of it:

“This is not a civilised matter… it is a primitive matter. If we exist, we shall dominate you — that is clear and inevitable. Will you agree to be superseded, and start on the way to extinction without a struggle?”

It’s a case of kill or be killed, a sort of Cold War from within, with one generation set against the next, a war of “social rules” versus “elemental struggle”. The narrative, though, keeps to the tone of “social rules” and mild social comedy, meaning the reader has to, at some point, detach from the narrator’s tone and realise for themselves just how dark a story The Midwich Cuckoos is. If you don’t question that tone — if you read it merely as a “Cosy Catastrophe” — you’re not getting the full impact.