The Death of Grass, Paperback Book
4 out of 5 (17 ratings)


A thought experiment in future-shock survivalism' Robert MacFarlane'Gripping ... of all science fiction's apocalypses, this is one of the most haunting' Financial TimesWITH AN INTRODUCTION BY ROBERT MACFARLANEA post-apocalyptic vision of the world pushed to the brink by famine, John Christopher's science fiction masterpiece The Death of Grass includes an introduction by Robert MacFarlane in Penguin Modern Classics.At first the virus wiping out grass and crops is of little concern to John Custance.

It has decimated Asia, causing mass starvation and riots, but Europe is safe and a counter-virus is expected any day.

Except, it turns out, the governments have been lying to their people.

When the deadly disease hits Britain, society starts to descend into barbarism.

As John and his family try to make it across country to the safety of his brother's farm in a hidden valley, their humanity is tested to its very limits.

A chilling psychological thriller and one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written, The Death of Grass shows people struggling to hold on to their identities as the familiar world disintegrates - and the terrible price they must pay for surviving.John Christopher (1922-2012) was the pen name of Samuel Youd, a prolific writer of science fiction.

His novels were popular during the 1950s and 1960s, most notably The Death Of Grass (1956), The World in Winter (1962), and Wrinkle in the Skin (1965), all works depicting ordinary people struggling in the midst of apocalyptic catastrophes.

In 1966 he started writing science-fiction for adolescents; The Tripods trilogy, the Prince in Waiting trilogy (also known as the Sword of the Spirits trilogy) and The Lotus Caves are still widely read today.Ifyou enjoyed The Death of Grass, you might like John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, also available in Penguin Modern Classics.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Science fiction
  • ISBN: 9780141190174

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Showing 1 - 5 of 17 reviews.

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The 1950s saw an explosion of science fiction and cultural dystopias. In 1951 there was John Wyndham’s ground-breaking novel Day of the Triffids, followed by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. Then there was Quatermass on the television. William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies was also published in 1954.Then in 1956 The Death of Grass was published. John Christopher was an established author, but this was his breakthrough novel. Readers may recall The Tripods BBC TV series which was made in the mid-70s from a trilogy of books he later wrote for older children. But back to The Death of Grass. It’s not really a science fiction novel, despite the catalyst for all that’s to come being a rather realistic virus that kills grass (compared with the monstrous triffids). It is dystopian though, and survival is the key.In the beginning we meet two brothers, John and David Custance. David grows up to inherit the family farm in a remote Westmorland valley, John becomes an engineer in London and has a family of his own. John and Ann, and their best friends the Buckleys, Roger and Olivia live a nice life in suburbia with their kids. They fervently believe the virus which is rampaging in Asia will burn itself out or be cured before it reaches them, but governments are planning for the future… I quote: ...At the beginning of September, the United States House of Representatives passed an amendment to a Presidential bill of food aid, calling for a Plimsoll line for food stocks for home use. A certain minimum tonnage of all foods was to be kept in reserve, to be used inside the United States only.Ann could not keep her indignation at this to herself.“Millions facing famine,” she said, “and those fat old men refuse them food.”They were all having tea on the Buckley’s lawn. The children had retired, with a supply of cakes, into the shrubbery, from which which shrieks and giggles issued at intervals. (End Quote)And they continue to bicker about the famine in the East. I quote: ..."Roger stared back. “We once agreed about my being a throwback – remember? If I irritate the people around me, don’t forget they may irritate me occasionally. Woolly-mindedness does. I believe in self-preservation, and I’m not prepared to wait until the knife is at my throat before I start fighting. I don’t see the sense in giving the children’s last crust to a starving beggar.”“Last crust…” Ann looked at the table, covered with the remains of a lavish tea. “Is that what you call this?” …… Olivia said: “I really think it’s best not to talk about it. It isn’t as though there’s anything we can do about it – we ourselves, anyway. We must just hope things don’t turn out so badly.”All so nice and cosy, but there are intimations that the men are willing to be heroes if needed, and of course they are to get their chance. Things get much much worse, and they get just a few hours notice to get out of London before it’s sealed. The two families plan to go north to Westmorland, but stop off first at a gun-shop where they meet the owner Pirrie, who’s a good shot. ‘Persuaded’ to take him with them, the rest of the book tells of their journey north. But the army are already manning road-blocks out of London, and it’s amazing how quickly the men transform from well-meaning middle-class blokes into ruthless killers.They are to encounter many more troubles as they make their way north. Pirrie, (who reminded me of Donald Pleasance in nasty mode), makes himself very useful to the group’s leader John, who finds himself having to make tougher and tougher decisions as they travel and to harden his heart. Ann his wife, remains the group’s conscience.This immediate transformation of the country into a miriad of small fiefdoms and garrisons, with its accompanying moral disintegration may have happened rather fast, but kept things moving towards the conclusion. John and Roger were ex-Army, so had the discipline to do what they had to do, the women were 1950s housewives, but at least Ann had a mind of her own, despite some rather dated, arch and cheesy dialogue.This new Penguin classics reissue with the super cover also has a great foreword by Robert MacFarlane, the landscape writer, which puts it into context and surveys the (eco-)dystopian sub-genre. For another excellent review, you can visit John Self’s blog at Asylum.I was totally won over by this book. I feel I may have to revisit the Triffids though.

Review by

I can't help thinking that this novel must have influenced J.G.Ballard. It has the same relentlessly pessimistic view of how human nature reverts to savagery in extreme circumstances. When a virus that kills all grass (so wheat, barley etc) reaches Britain, the country soon decends into chaos. The novel tracks the attempt of a small group, led by John, to travel from London to John's brother's farm in Westmoreland, where they believe there is some prospect of sanctuary. In many ways the characterisations are clunky and the writing limited in style, but the book still grabs. I'd put this down to the behaviour of two characters: John, the reluctant leader, who gradually comes to take on his role with gusto, turning into a rather unreliable dictator in the process, and Pirrie, a psychotic gunseller, whom the group come to rely on to do their dirty work. The unpredictability of these two men is reflected in the narrative, which is filled with surprises and never fails to attempt to terrify.

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This is a prescient book, written in 1956, taking the idea of an ecological disaster (the death of all grass based plants, such as corn, wheat and rice) and seeing how that might play out in England. In some ways the book is more horrific for having been written in 1956 with the author being so realistic about how quickly society breaks down and our small group of characters making for safety in the rural north of England, with crises along the way making us realise how quickly civilised values would disappear. The story is competently told and well thought out, with the characters developing somewhat. However, this development is spelt out in a explicit way, rather than the reader seeing the development implicitly from the characters actions and words. This may be due to short nature of the book, but it does detract from it for me.

Review by

If you've read or are reading "the Road" you'll see a few things in common with this.A virus is destroying the worlds rice crops, its OK though the scientists have found an answer. Only the resulting mutation now kills all of the grasses. John Custance gets an early warning of the measures the government are preparing to take through his friend Roger. Whilst they have a head start,its not a big lead and quite soon the fabric of society is fraying.That's the main thrust, how people adapt & cope with the descent into feudalism and deal with the failure of society's structures. That the toss of a coin can bring about so much.

Review by

A 50s/60s world where a viral plague wipes out all grasses on Earth - including rice and wheat. This is one of my favourite genres of fiction, yet somehow I was rather unmoved by the story. The prose felt very "formal", rather matter-of-fact, and left me detached from what was happening - not a problem I had with the contemporaneous "Day of the Triffids", for example. The ideas are strong, and the resolution striking, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped I would. Odd from the author of the Tripods series, I expected better.

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