The current drought in the central part of the United States, and the miles of dying corn I see driving to and from my petite amie's place in Illinois, have made me slightly more apprehensive than usual about long-term food security. "Usual," in the case of an overfed American like myself, means "not at all." Matters were different for Englishmen in the middle of the last century, who suffered through very severe rationing during the Second World War - with little to eat besides fish, potatoes, and oatmeal - and ongoing food shortages into the 1950s. No-one starved in wartime Britain, but the thought of famine, and what it might do to an urbanized and strongly-governed country, cannot have been far from the minds of imaginative Britons. One of these was C.S. Youd (1922-2012), who under the pseudonym John Christopher became a well-known author of young-adult science fiction novels in the 1970s. Before entering the Y.A. market, Christopher wrote a number of global disaster novels for adults, of which the best, No Blade of Grass, described the swift collapse of civilization in the wake of a global famine.
The novel focuses on a small group of middle-class Britons – engineer John Custance, his wife Ann, his farmer brother David, his friend Roger Buckley (a civil servant) and Roger's wife Olivia – in the very near future. A rice-killing virus, known as Chung-Li, mutates into a form which kills all grasses and grains, and spreads relentlessly from East Asia to Europe. At first the novel's protagonists watch apprehensively as eastern and southern Asia collapse into anarchy and mass starvation; when Chung-Li reaches Britain, they begin a dangerous trip to David Custance's farm in northern England. The characters pass through a countryside controlled now by bandits and faceless murderers, and they themselves gradually shed their sympathy for other refugees and their inhibitions against killing, until nothing is left of their morals but a sort of feudal small-group loyalty. From this, Christopher concludes, will rise not a revived civilization, but a violent neo-medieval monarchy similar to that in his later children's novel The Prince in Waiting.
No Blade of Grass is not itself a young-adult novel, nor is it a "cozy apocalypse" that kills the world's "bad people" and preserves the good. It is instead a study of how thinly the "veneer of civilization" (15) is spread on even the most civilized of men and women. Its story, a fast-paced one written in crisp, clear prose, is replete with barbarism: murder, rape, honor killing, and betrayal. Behind the action-adventure story, however, lurks a mature question: are modern governments capable of an effective or an ethical response to a real catastrophe? Christopher's answer to this question is a gloomy one. His character Roger, a well-connected Ministry of Production functionary, reports early in the story that Britain's government is lying to its people about the danger posed by Chung-Li, but that its bureaucratic structure prevents anyone from proposing radical solutions – like ordering farmers to switch from wheat to less-profitable potatoes – because no-one will get enough credit if the worst happens to offset the risk of being fired if it doesn't. When the worst does happen, the government converts itself into a temporary dictatorship and adopts a policy at the opposite end of the spectrum: sealing off Britain's cities and killing their inhabitants with nuclear bombs, to ensure there will be sufficient food for the rest of the population. When this plan leaks out and a group of liberal revolutionaries seizes London, the result is pure chaos: a mass exodus from the panicked cities and a total breakdown of civil order in the countryside. Britain thus essentially "tries out" several different forms of government in the space of a few months – bureaucracy, dictatorship, revolutionary anarchy – and all fail catastrophically.
Christopher has no illusions, however, about the sort of society and political structure likely to emerge out of Britain's post-famine wasteland. John and Roger briefly entertain the hope that they can create a freer life for themselves on David's farm, but that quickly falls apart as they realize what happens in the absence of government: power shifts to those who have weapons and the ruthlessness to use them. John himself becomes a sort of unwitting warlord, loyal to his immediate family, willing to use violence to protect them, and also willing, as it happens, to take other refugees under his protection. Ultimately, this is what turns John into a sort of proto-king (as Ann observes): his sense of duty to his followers trumps other moral considerations, including family obligations, and constrains his actions. In a post-apocalyptic society, not even the king is free. This is a bleak vision, but it is also an effective answer to SF writers who imagine that a global catastrophe like a nuclear war will somehow lead to a better society.
This novel was published in 1956, and while its story holds up pretty well in our century, there are two respects in which it has become dated. First, Christopher's attitude toward women is old-fashioned, not to say misogynistic. His female characters are articulate and thoughtful, but they are also victims, reduced, as Ann bitterly remarks, to "chattel" in the post-famine world. The author probably believed he was being realistic, but he bases his treatment of female characters on the assumption that women are naturally less ruthless and violent than men, and that this will necessarily lead to their subjugation in a post-apocalyptic world. This may be true, but I doubt it is universally true. Women certainly have no less innate technical ability to employ violence than men, particularly since the invention of reliable firearms (the primary instruments of violence in Christopher's novel), and hunger tends to erode men's and women's moral faculties equally fast. An updated version of No Blade of Grass would feature at least one or two women serving as bandit leaders or local militia volunteers, much like Yvonne in Shaun of the Dead.
Second, Christopher wrote his novel in a more Malthusian era, at a time when many Westerners assumed the world was always going to live on the brink of starvation. As Timothy Snyder observed, the belief that there would never be enough food to go around strongly influenced both the Nazis and Stalin's Communists, who developed policies – collective farms, planned famines, wars of conquest – designed to secure scarce food supplies for favored groups. Even after World War Two, it was a commonplace among Westerners that the Third World would never be able to feed itself, a view expressed most forcefully in Paul Ehlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb. Today, however, such neo-Malthusian views have been trumped by technology, specifically the Haber-Bosch nitrogen-fixing process and Norman Borlaug's crop-breeding experiments, both of which have made it possible to feed a global population twice as large as the one in Ehrlich's day. We also have a much wider variety of staple crops available to us than in the early 20th century; my worries about this year's corn crop aside, the drought I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is not likely to lead to global famine, if only because it is unlikely to have any effect on the global rice, manioc, wheat, potato, or soybean harvests. We'll see if I'm still as sanguine after twenty more years of global warming.