“The Death Of Grass” by John Christopher (1956)

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“As sometimes happens, death healed a family breach.”

For all my love of city breaks and wandering around London, I’m a child of the countryside through and through. Last time I was working in a London office for a few weeks, it was only a matter of days before I had to escape for my lunch break to the nearest green space to sit on some spongy turf. (Mint Street Park, incidentally, is charming.) My hometown is surrounded by field, forest and farm, and it’s great. So the idea of living in a world suddenly that lacked so much greenery feels like one of the worst dystopian scenarios available. Despite me promise to myself that I’d stop reading dystopian fiction until we stopped living in one, I found myself this weekend engaged in John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, a sort of distant cousin to The Day of the Triffids.

John and David Custance have lived very different lives. While David inherited the family farm and concerned himself solely with growing crops and raising livestock, John adopted a more sedate and comfortable life in London, working as an engineer. Both, however, are troubled by the news from Asia. A virus has caused the rice harvest to fail, and massive swathes of the continent are now starving and suffering from near-total anarchy. The rest of the world is working on a cure, but everyone’s quietly convinced that something like that could never happen in the West.

But soon the virus mutates and now is taking out all grasses, from lawns to wheat, barley and rye. With enormous food shortages across the whole world, there soon comes the discovery that the government have been lying: there is no cure for the virus. The Prime Minister is rumoured to be arranging a plan to drop atom bombs on the UK’s major cities, leaving a smaller population to feed on whatever root vegetables and fish can be harvested, but panic sets in before that, and soon anarchy finds its way to British shores too. John rounds him his family and friends, and a couple of other stragglers, and they set off on a cross-country journey to his brother’s farm, where they hope they will find salvation. They just have to make sure they don’t lose their humanity along the way.

John Christopher (real name Sam Youd) has created here a terrifying world. While the virus is what causes all of the problems, it’s fair to say that the real villain here are humans themselves. As soon as word leaks out that there’s no hope, everyone begins to change. John takes the lead of his group and becomes almost fixated by his role of “tribal chief”. He quickly becomes harsher and more stubborn. His friend, Roger, who has always been very jovial and unable to take much seriously, seems to be sobered up quickly by the events. His sense of humour can’t cope with this new world. Even Ann, John’s wife, changes and becomes unafraid to wield a weapon.

Hands down, though, creepiest character is Henry Pirrie. He’s an older man, a gunsmith, who joins the group with his wife because he knows how to use weapons better than any of them. He is, however, more cunning than they first realise, and uses the new lawless state as an excuse to fulfill his fantasies. He’s deeply unpleasant, but John appears unable to be able to do away with him. Perhaps the most tragic figures are the children, who seem so full of life but the reader knows that there is unlikely to be a happy ending.

The science behind a lot of it seems sound to me. The rise of monocultures and pesticides have led to this virus being able to spread and mutate easily. It does make one wonder whether we’d be able to halt something like this before it got out of hand. The only science that seems particularly dated is the use of atom bombs to destroy the cities. While I understand, theoretically, that a smaller population would find it easier to survive than a large one, it does beg the question: did no one consider that the nuclear fallout would render the entire country sterile anyway?

When the Financial Times reviewed the book (I didn’t know they did that), they said, “of all fiction’s apocalypses, this is one of the most haunting” and I really have to agree. Aliens, zombies and nuclear weapons may be scary, but there’s something insidiously terrifying about this one. I think it’s the speed at which society collapses (an issue I deal with in my second novel, see below) and how soon people are willing to turn on one another. The fact that something like this has already begun to happen – a fungus called Ug99 has been spreading around wheat fields in Africa and the Indian subcontient since 1999 – only makes the whole thing even more unnerving. Brilliant, shocking, and maybe a little too prescient for comfort.

If dystopian fiction is your thing, I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“The Day Of The Triffids” by John Wyndham (1951)

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the garden...

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the garden…

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

The world at the moment seems so full of threats to our happiness, health and, frankly, sanity, that it’s almost a relief to dive into one where the problems are more unrealistic and we can go, “Well, Britain may be about to ostracise itself from the rest of the continent, a madman is a stone’s throw from taking the reins of America, and every celebrity we’ve ever loved has died, but at least we’re not being attacked by giant, carnivorous plants”. Thank heavens for small mercies.

When the novel opens, Bill Masen is recovering in hospital with bandages around his eyes after an incident in which his eyes were damaged by poison from an unusual plant called the triffid. Several feet high, with long stingers and the unnerving ability to move around on three stout legs, triffids have been genetically bred by mistake, but it turns out they’re fairly docile, and produce excellent quality oil. Humanity has, of course, turned them into a commodity.

Bill is unnerved by the silence in the hospital, and upon removing his bandages, he soon finds that the hospital is almost deserted. So are the streets. In fact, there’s barely anyone left at all, and anyone who is around can’t see anything. The night before, the story goes, a comet tore through the atmosphere and anyone who witnessed the lights has lost their sight. Unfortunately, around 95% of the world’s population saw it. Humanity has fallen almost immediately.

Concerned about his chances of survival, Bill tries to find others who can see, eventually rescuing the sighted Josella Playton, a beautiful young woman with an undeserved reputation for writing a supposedly salacious novel. Together they set about finding more survivors, stumbling into new forms of civilisation, and all the while wondering if this blindness and the triffids are related, or simply an unfortunate coincidence. After all, now the plants have an advantage – they know how to survive without sight. And they’re closing in.

I didn’t know much about this classic before embarking on it, just that it’s about a race of intelligent, killer plants. But actually the triffids take a backseat to the issue that the world has come to an end thanks to blindness. It’s a terrifying world that the characters now find themselves in as they struggle to come to terms with what’s happened and work out how they’re going to survive. With such a small percentage of the population able to see, you wonder if there can by any hope at all. Bill is quite flat as a character, but having worked with triffids for many years, he seems to have a better understanding of them than anyone else we meet in the novel. Characters come and go, but this feels quite natural for a story about the apocalypse, as factions form and disperse and people are taken sick or otherwise killed. Often we don’t get closure on events or people’s individual stories, and while disappointing in some ways, it works well as a device in a story like this, because there wouldn’t be a lot of answers. Plus, we’re only seeing things from Bill’s perspective.

The triffids themselves are horrific and genuinely terrifying. I found myself staring with caution at a vase of sunflowers in my lounge after I’d finished it. We humans are terrified by the idea of being wiped out by a species more powerful than us (probably because, particularly in the Western world, all we’ve done throughout history is wipe out those weaker than ourselves) and to here make that villain a plant is a particularly evil twist, as plants are so far removed from what we imagine to be intelligent that they become creepy and horrific. The plants seem to show intelligence, and perhaps malice of forethought, and one cannot help but shudder when they reappear on the page.

The ending is satisfactory too, though I don’t want to spoil it here. It ties up what ends can be tied up, and leaves it open for more stories. Hopefully one day humanity can rebuild. All I know is, I’m going to bed with a bottle of weed killer under the pillow from now on.

“Where Do Camels Belong?” by Ken Thompson (2014)

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camels“Species are born, and then they die.”

Because of my tendency to read pretty much anything, it does mean that I occasionally read something that’s incredibly niche and won’t be of much interest to many of my readers. I find myself at that position again, but it’s my duty to review as much as possible so here we go with a tale of ecology, biodiversity and Japanese knotweed – Where Do Camels Belong?

Though I’d forgotten his name, turns out I read another book by Ken Thompson five years ago, that one called Do We Need Pandas? He is an ecologist who seems to has written a few books on biodiversity and overlooked aspects of the natural world – one of his books is a study of weeds – but has an informative, accessible style, meaning he’s a great introduction to some of these topics that the layman (such as myself) might not know much about.

It opens with the titular question, discussing where we would expect to find camels. The answer isn’t quite as easy as it first seems. Most people probably associate camels with the Middle East and northern Africa, but Bactrian camels live in Central Asia, the camel evolved in North America, retains it’s greatest diversity in South America, and the dromedary is only found wild in Australia. So which is really its home?

Thompson then launches into a study of invasive species and how animals and plants traverse the world, adapting to new environments and, often in the eyes of humans, doing a lot of damage. There are discussions as to how long something has to live somewhere before it’s considered native, and how that opinion can change depending on how cute it is. For example, rabbits aren’t native to Britain, but we used to have wolves and no one wants to reintroduce them much. Which has the greater right to live here? Do we have the right to make that choice? Humans are, of course, perhaps the most invasive species of all, responsible for many of the particularly bad invaders.

But Thompson argues that, actually, aliens aren’t bad things at all – at least, not all of them. Scientists, helped along by the media, pick and choose the species they want to deem alien and invasive, and ignore some of the facts. Zebra mussels, for example, clog pipes and attach themselves to ships, but they make the water they live in cleaner and increase food stocks for crabs and fish. Tamarisk is a plant that supposedly takes up too much water and dries out river beds, but those rivers are already being over managed by humanity who have the right to more water than even flows in them.

As usual with science, there are a lot of “we just don’t know” moments here, and this leaves us with many questions. Would Britain have been any better if the Romans hadn’t brought along most familiar vegetable species? Should we introduce Iberian lynx to Britain, since they’re dying out where they “belong”, and would help solve the rabbit problem? Why is bracken not considered an annoyance, even though it’s more invasive than most aliens? And how much loss has there really been to Hawaii’s ecosystem?

It’s a really interesting look at an often misunderstood aspect of the natural world, and makes us look at ourselves. We are, once again, asking the wrong questions and seem to have considered ourselves above and outside of nature, which is perhaps one of the most dangerous ideas we’ve ever come up with. Food for thought, at least.