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Artwork: Revenge of the Lawn Fish by Will Jacques
"We're All Bankrupt Now": The Calculus of Expediency in The Day of the Triffids and No Blade of Grass
Linda J. Holland-Toll
In this essay, I examine what happens to the body politic when sweeping and cataclysmic changes overtake a society (in this case, mid- twentieth century Great Britain). Since I am interested in the creation of dystopias, both these texts were ideal, as they examined the consequences of what is sometimes called the Judeo-Christian ethos and/or common decency. While both texts postulate sweeping changes, each author takes his creation in opposite ways; what interested me here is how quickly the moral foundations of society, seemingly permanent in nature, crumbled as utilitarianism and Social Darwinism came into play.
While both John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) and John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass (1956) are classified as science fiction novels, there is another aspect of both novels that I find most riveting – the shift in moral politics which occurs in the wake of a world catastrophe and results in a dystopian society. Both novels use this catastrophic end to examine the validity of the bases for mid-twentieth century society – and reach opposite conclusions on what might replace current society and political structure. Neither conclusion is particularly acceptable, as both oppose the cultural models we hold to be valid.
Both these texts produce “cultural dis/ease”. Such an effect is achieved by a text which has extreme or supernatural elements, induces strong feelings of terror, horror, or revulsion in the reader, and generates a significant degree of unresolved dis/ease in the reader. The key definition employed is that of a degree of unresolved dis/ease significant enough that the reader cannot simply gloss it over and return to business as usual. Such texts haunt the reader, questioning as they do the societal constructs which we accept as the basis of day-to-day life. If, for example, our society views the value of each individual as equal, human life as precious, community as the cynosure of human social order, and political systems as positive organizing tools, a text which creates rampant dis/ease does so by calling the accepted cultural models into question and exposing them as convenient social constructs (Holland-Toll, p. 9). Naomi Quinn and Dorothy Holland define cultural models as follows: “Cultural models are presupposed, taken for granted models of the world which are widely shared (although not necessarily to the exclusion of other alternative models) by the members of a society and that play an enormous role in their understanding of the world and their behavior in it” (Quinn, p. 4). Cultural models explain how meaning systems are organized within a culture. More importantly for my purposes, Quinn and Holland, et al., postulate the importance of cultural/cognitive models as imposed order: “Undeniably a great deal of order exists in the natural world we experience. However, much of the order we perceive in the world is there only because we put it there.” (Quinn, p. 3) Dystopian texts such as The Day of the Triffids or No Blade of Grass work by exposing the contradictions embedded in social reality, contradictions which cultural models often "paper over" in order to achieve and maintain accepted social order. If such fictions do indeed cause a person to reassess reality, to consider cultural models not as bastions of morality and decency but as changeable models, the effect is extremely dis/ease-provoking. Both texts refute the idea that these fictional societies are really different from those in which we live now, and therein lies the dis/ease. Most readers recognize that these texts, however extreme some of the plot elements may be, are firmly based in the material culture of their time and are "about" that culture. To read of an alien civilization, a radically othered civilization, which is wiped out by its own stupidity, is not as dis/ease provoking, as productive of cultural dread, as to read of a society which does not have tentacles but which does, however stereotypically portrayed, include our friends and neighbours. I stress the absence of the purely alien or fantastic because while some of the events may indeed appear fantastic, they are carefully rooted within the possible (Holland-Toll). Wyndham explains the triffids, his carnivorous semi-sentient mobile monstrosities, carefully providing scientific background and a history. Christopher’s Chung-li virus, especially in an age of genetic engineering and mutating viruses, is not in the least fantastic.
Both The Day of the Triffids and No Blade of Grass are concerned with the formation of a new social order, one that abandons any Donnian foolishness about the loss of any man diminishing mankind, as well as any value in the thirty-odd centuries of our accepted Judeo-Christian ethos. Both novels examine the monstrous aspect of any body politic, and the corruption to which its abuses of power inevitably lead. Both novels also postulate a society in which any concern for individuals other than the tribe or the family is counter-productive, societies within which the first thing to be jettisoned is the ages old idea that we do owe our fellow citizens such aid and assistance as we can render. Although they reach quite different conclusions, in both The Day of the Triffids and No Blade of Grass the strategies of exclusion (demarcation, demonization, scapegoating and sacrifice)1 are used to decide who gets to participate in the new order and who does not. Thus, in these particular texts, a new society is constructed on the bodies of those who do not get the promised perfection, on those who are victims of the strategies of exclusion. Both novels immediately define the have-nots – Triffids in terms of sight and No Blade in terms of weaponry or land, exclude them from the new society, and immediately reject any sense of obligation to them. Both novels also create dis/ease by creating a sequence of events in which viewing one’s friends, neighbours, and fellow citizens as either assets or liabilities is not only pragmatic and expedient but also the inevitable sequence of events. People who cannot adapt, die: it is as simple as that.
The threat posed in Triffids is dual: catastrophe comes not only from overhead, unseen satellites which blind most of the earth’s population, but also from the triffid, a plant which corporate scientists have grown as a food crop to supply the ever-increasing population of the earth. Unfortunately, the scientists and technologists who use them are not aware of the triffids’ actual predatory nature. Not only are they ambulatory, carnivorous and capable of delivering deadly stings, but they seem to be at least semi-sentient. The triffids will prove at least as great a source of menace to humanity as the unseen satellites. Once most of humanity is blinded, its one superiority vanishes. As a triffid expert points out, neither the brain nor manual dexterity matters without sight. “Take away our vision and the superiority is gone. Worse than that our position becomes inferior to theirs, because they are adapted to a sightless existence and we are not,” a statement that reeks of the fantastic, but turns out to be quite grimly accurate (Wyndham, p. 33). Hordes of blinded and helpless humans are easy prey for a plant that can kill by poison.
John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass deals with not only the Chung-Li virus, a virus which originally kills the genus Orzydae, commonly known as rice, and eventually all grass plants, but also with the actions of the British government, society and individuals faced with this catastrophe.2 When science and technology fail to counter the virus, the mass starvation of most of the world becomes inevitable. Britain, with a low proportion of arable land and a concentrated urban population, is particularly vulnerable. It quickly becomes apparent that of a population of 45 million, only 15 million can possibly be provided with food. When the scientists fail to stop Chung-Li, the politicians, who have been lying to the citizenry about a solution, conclude, secretly of course, that the urban population is expendable and decide to nuke ‘em all.
Thus, both authors are working not only with apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenarios, and what happens when science and technology are carelessly used, but also what happens when one world order crumbles over night and the survivors must re/create order and society.
Both texts, No Blade of Grass in particular, depict societies which seem to work well, societies with familiar values, which crumble into nothingness when catastrophe strikes. In neither text does the previously stable society return, raising more uncomfortable questions about whether or not a rational stable society is even possible.
Both texts raise highly discomforting questions, questions which leave a lingering tinge of cultural dread and also resonate with issues the planet still faces. What is our duty to our fellow human beings? At what point does even the utilitarian “the most happiness for the greatest number” change to the most happiness for whomever can grab it and devil take the hindmost? Marx’s idea that Social Darwinism, the idea that the winnowing out of the unsuccessful is not only inevitable but morally positive, a just consequence of their feckless and parasitic behavior, is, of course, an idea that recurs periodically in modern culture. Both texts are extremely disturbing because the type of ethics which many people see as defining human beings, i.e., decency, care for others, obligations to the unfortunate, and self-sacrifice disappear almost immediately, as if instead of being intrinsic to the definition of humanity, such morals and ethics are sloughed off as easily as a snake sloughs off its outgrown skin. Within days, in both The Day of the Triffids and No Blade of Grass, any idea that human beings have an obligation to each other based on the qualities that make us human have disappeared like water on a heated griddle. Phht! And they are gone. Worse than the almost immediate turn to self-preservation is the fact that such a course seems perfectly reasonable and inevitable; in neither novel does it take any character any time to revert to the first law of nature. Worst of all, the authors implicitly argue that such behaviour is the proper course. Laying bare the ideas that altruism has no place in catastrophe, that self or family are the only important units of society, and that everyone else lives to be used or discarded, and having this course prove successful provides a simultaneously riveting and revolting read. How the main characters in each novel react and what new societies they choose to form creates a striking antinomy, one in which the initial postulates are very similar, but the end results are opposite.
The Day of the Triffids opens with William Masen, the narrator-protagonist, describing the effect of a magnificent comet display. Everyone who looks at the display, which includes nearly all the world, is blinded. Since Masen has been stung by a triffid, and his eyes were bandaged, he is one of the lucky few who remain sighted. Once he realizes the extent of the catastrophe, Masen starts taking stock. Very early he realizes that the old order is dead and buried, but he is, at first, unwilling to act upon his knowledge. Despite being quite hungry, he cannot bring himself to take food, for example. There are many shops with food in the windows “untenanted and unguarded;” he has money to pay or the ability to smash and grab, and yet neither course recommends itself to him. He feels, however irrationally, that if he acts on his knowledge that a fundamental change has occurred, it will become real, whereas if he acts like the law-abiding individual he has been for thirty years, everything will be magically restored.
“Absurd it undoubtedly was, but I had a very strong sense that the moment I should stove in one of those plate glass windows I would leave the old order behind me forever: I should become a looter, a sacker, a low scavenger upon the dead body of the system that had nourished me.” (Wyndham, p. 37)
Masen quickly realizes that much more than the body politic has died, and he is soon faced with greater problems than whether or not it is theft to take food from a broken-in storefront. His real quandary is ethical and reflects the main source of dis/ease within the novel. What responsibility has he to his fellow humans, what constitutes morality, and what political system will be most effective are concerns which trouble him, especially as he sees the helpless hordes of recently blinded people milling aimlessly around. While he feels he should be doing something to help, he also feels that he could be at risk from so many desperate blinded people.
Bill meets Josella Playton when he rescues her from a blinded man who has captured her and leashed her. Josella is captured and leashed like a dog because she does attempt to help her fellow citizens, and the blind man realizes that she is his ticket to survival. Bill quickly realizes the risk in allowing anyone to know that he and Josella are sighted. In addition, as a botanist, he has already realized the risk that triffids pose. Triffids are infinitely superior to the blinded and can pick humans off with relative impunity. Soon, in an inversion and reversal, the triffids will be consuming the human beings who were consuming them, multiplying and starting to overrun isolated homesteads.
Much of the novel is concerned with Bill and Josella’s individual quest for a working political order in the midst of apocalypse. Very early on, Masen realizes that, however hard-hearted, un-Christian, and selfish refusing aid to the hordes of blinded seems, helping the unsighted would be futile. Wilfred Coker, a radical Socialist, speaking to the sighted who have sequestered themselves, argues the following:
“Out there are thousands of poor devils only wanting for someone to show them how to get the food [. . .]. And you could do it. [. . . ] But do you? Do you, you buggers? No, what you do is shut yourselves in here and let them bloody well starve [. . . ] God almighty, aren’t you people human?” (Wyndham, p. 73)
Josella agrees, but William makes the following uncomfortably cogent argument:
“Yes, he was right [ . . . ] And yet he was quite wrong too. [. . .] We could show some, though only some, of these people where there is food. We could do that for a few days, maybe for a few weeks, but after that --
“It seems so awful, so callous. [ . . .]
“Should we spend our time in prolonging misery when we believe that there is no chance of saving the people in the end?
“Put like that, there doesn’t seem to be much choice, does there? And even if we could save a few, which are we going to choose? And who are we to choose? And how long could we do it, anyway?” (Wyndham, p. 74)
Even this early in the text, the strategies of exclusion, those ubiquitous markers of cultural dread, have come forcibly into play. The situation is, to a large extent, responsible for the demarcation which follows so swiftly, but the self-serving pragmatism, despite the cogent reasoning, leaves a bad taste in a critical reader’s mouth, echoing as it does other self-serving commentaries in the years immediately previous to this novel’s setting. A typical resident of Nazi Germany or San Francisco, California, might say, as their friends and neighbours are demarcated by bad blood, epicanthic eye folds, yellow arm bands, or government-issued authorizations, “And even if we could save a few, which are we going to choose . . .” Thus, the very few sighted decide that they will turn their backs on their former friends and neighbours in order to survive themselves.
One group in Triffids, for example, postulates a new society, loosely based on the principles of Social Darwinism, as well as an expressed willingness to think outside the box. In this new world order, the blind are nothing more than useless mouths. They cannot adapt to a world in which they are victims of human and plant predators and their value is approximately that of 90s junk bonds or Enron stock.
The proponents of this new view of society write off most of Britain’s population, taking the harshly pragmatic view that if any type of society is to survive, they must jettison sentiment and outmoded forms of humanity. Trying to care for the millions of blinded people will only result in the sighted perishing as well. Blinded men and most blinded women are thus written off like bad or uncollectible debts. If the race is to survive, then most individuals are unimportant; the newly blinded must be abandoned to their fate; only those who are sighted or are useful, in this case limited numbers of young blinded women, are worth preserving.
William and Josella decide to join the pragmatic group. In what at first seems heartless pragmatism, this group severely limits the ratio of sighted to blind, allows no unproductive blind men, and requires the discarding of now outmoded societal norms and cultural models. Monogamous marriage no longer fits the needs of the day and must therefore be discarded. Polygamy is substituted because of the need to rebuild the sighted population quickly. Thus, the pragmatists argue for discarding the basic tenets of Judeo-Christianity and what is known as common decency in favour of a pragmatic philosophy which resonates with Social Darwinism.
In this society, the successful survivors recognize that the old ways will no longer work and a new way of life must be invented, one which recognizes that moral and cultural relativity will be the ruling guide to the new society. As Dr. Voorhees, a professor of sociology, succinctly states, “ [. . .] different environments set different standards.” (p. 86) He further adds that in creating a new society, only one prejudice can be retained – that of the preservation of the race: “We must look at all we do [he says] with this question in mind: ‘Is this going to help our race survive or will it hinder it? If it will help we must do it whether or not it conflicts with the ideas in which we were brought up [. . .] We must have the moral courage to think and plan for ourselves.’” Behind the idea of a “new society” and the undoubted necessity for new ways of thinking, however, lurks a horrific view of the worth of the individual. As Voorhees says, “We can afford to support a limited number of women who cannot see because they will have babies who can see. We cannot afford to support men who cannot see.” (p. 87) Women are valued solely in terms of childbearing abilities. One doesn’t need eyes to become pregnant – only a working womb. In one short speech, more than 30 centuries of the Judeo-Christian ethos is discarded. All ideas of morality and decency and the worth of most individuals is ruthlessly jettisoned. Moreover, what is so dreadful about this calculus of expediency is its ultimate terrible accuracy. As society collapses and services disappear, and procuring food and shelter in an increasingly hostile environment – one in which taking food from grocery shelves is no longer possible – become more difficult, it will be impossible for one or two sighted people to care for one or two hundred helpless blinded people. Thus, these millions of helpless and unlucky people are doomed no matter what anyone does.
Josella, one of the few characters who exhibits any compunction at all, makes the point that any one of the blinded women or men could easily be either of them. She knows that she has been spared blindness by random chance; she accepts that she cannot save the doomed millions, but says that if she and Bill can save even one or two and give them the best life possible, it helps justify the abandonment to misery and death of the millions.
Before the pragmatists can leave to establish a new community, however, Wilfred Coker, the rabble-rousing leader of the blind, captures the sighted, and forces them to work for the blinded, reflecting an agenda in which need and not contribution is the governing factor. Coker employs both Marx’s and Bentham’s political rhetoric here with his emphasis on the necessary redistribution of wealth and use of the means of production. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” and “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals [. . .]” are the organizing principles of this community. The problem, of course, is that there are too many helpless blinded for the relatively few sighted to care for, and the blind really cannot compel the sighted to care for them. Both Josella and William are captured and realize that, manacled or not, they hold the upper hand. Josella, for example, states that if she is not unmanacled, she will poison her keepers. Even though Bill realizes that all he is doing is postponing starvation, he decides to stay and try to keep “his lot” going, even going so far as to try to figure out how to get them safely into the country, until a mysterious plague wipes out most of “his” blind. As this plague spreads like wildfire through the masses of helpless blinded people, even Coker recognizes that there is more to saving them than simply feeding them. Reluctantly, he abandons his beliefs.
Yet another group, headed by Miss Durrant, decidedly reactionary and very religious, chooses to uphold the now outmoded standards of "decency" and Christianity and declines to join the pragmatics. Eventually, this group, which does struggle valiantly according to an old fashioned Christian ethos to care for the poor, the sick, and the blind, is wiped out by a combination of the plague and stiff-neckedness. Thus, it is quickly apparent that the old forms of society, whether decent Christian, Marxist, or Utilitarian do not work and must be discarded. And yet, how can a critical reader feel comfortable with this conclusion?
As the plague sweeps London, Bill and Josella manage to escape but are separated. Much of the remaining novel deals with Bill's attempt to locate Josella, his encounters with different types of political systems which are emerging from the wreck, his eventual reunion with Josella, and their attempts to carry out their model of agrarian self-sufficiency as individuals withdrawn from the society at large.
Bill meets Coker again, who admits that his kidnapping scheme was wrong, but his comments illustrate the discomfort a reader may feel: “I reckon your lot did have the right idea from the start – only it didn’t look right and it didn’t sound right a week ago.” (Wyndham, p. 113) They travel together, searching for Beadley’s group, and locate the group dedicated to the preservation of decency. This model is rapidly disintegrating; while everyone wants to behave in a Christian manner, Miss Durrant not only has no idea of organization, she also possesses a narrow-minded inability to accept help from anyone who does not share her beliefs. While she is willing to care for all the blind who come, she is not capable of looking beyond her reactionary views of society and taking help where she can find it. Thus, Coker, who gets the generator operating and offers his services, is rejected because he criticizes her; Bill is rejected because he originally joined the “indecent” group.
Bill eventually locates Josella at Shirning, a well-situated manor whose owners are now blind. They reject the political models they have hitherto encountered and decide to live as an extended family, reverting back to a pre-tribal society in which the family is the only unit. The dis/ease-provoking answer to how many could be saved evidently depends, at least to a degree, on the material commodities to which the blind have access. Hordes of hungry blinded people are one equation in the economies of preservation; blind people who own property and have a degree of self-sufficiency are another. Earlier in the novel, for example, Bill finds Susan, a young girl, and takes her along with him – a compassionate gesture, for certainly a young child cannot survive on her own. But Susan is sighted – would Bill have taken responsibility for her had she been blind? Is this genuine compassion or merely a convenient conjunction of the useful and the good?
Their struggles to reinvent self-sufficiency and hold off the increasingly menacing triffids take up much of the novel's main action. As the triffids multiply unrelentingly and the relics of society crumble about them, Bill realizes that self-sufficiency is not a viable option. He discards the agrarian self-sufficient model when he accepts the truth of one of the rabble-rousing Coker's comments about "next generation's barbarians" and realizes that only a society which recognizes the need for political community and which has a division of labour stands any chance at all, in other words, the much maligned bourgeoisie model so hated by Marx. Bill realizes that if human beings are not going to live short, brutish, and dull lives on human reservations, he and his family are going to have to join a group that can spare the excess resources and leisure for the research necessary to defeat the triffids. He can either struggle to keep his “tribe” safe, or join a community in which his botanical background is valuable enough to allow him to work on destroying triffids without also having to worry about the basic necessities of life. Thus, the main characters move from an individual to a communitarian mindset.
Serendipitously, Michael Beadley and the Colonel, the leaders of the pragmatic group they encountered in London, come to Shirning, and everyone decides to join the pragmatic group. This group has realized that humans need a new strategy for coping with the ever increasing menace of the triffids. They have realized that the next step in forming a new society is to move to the Isle of Wight, clear the triffids, and eventually retake Britain from the triffids. The decision to join this group proves the correct one, as an opposing type of political system has also tracked them down. This particular group has decided that a feudal oligarchy is the only possible political system. Under this system, “the obvious and quite natural social and economic form for that state of things we are having to face now”, Bill and Josella will be feudal seigneurs and the blinded the serfs who will work the land. (Wyndham, p. 186) The fact that Shirning is owned by Dennis and Mary Brent, who are blind but productive members of that society, cuts no ice at all. If they do not agree, they will be forcibly dispossessed of the farm, which will then be given to someone else who will run it as a feudal manor. Susan will be separated from them since she is not their blood kin. And such actions are presented as immoral and high-handed, despite the fact that in many ways, Bill and Josella have been just as ruthless themselves. Bill cannot imagine himself, as he says, as “a seigneur, driving my serfs and villeins before me with a whip.” (Wyndham, p. 188) Nor, despite Dennis and Mary’s blindness, can he imagine taking their property and using it, despite Torrance’s realistic comment that “If it were not for us, none of these blind people would be alive now [. . .] It’s up to them to do what we tell them, take what we give them, and be thankful for whatever they get.” (Wyndham, p. 186) This valuation does not differ all that much from Bill’s earlier views, but Dennis and Mary are part of the family now, blind or not, and it does not occur to Bill to accept an offer that leaves them eating ground up triffids, pulling a plough, and living in shacks.
Naturally, everyone successfully escapes, leaving Shirning to the forces of repression. Bill returns to his original career as a bourgeois botanist, one who lives off the efforts of his community, but who does so in order to find a way to exterminate the ever-menacing triffids and reclaim the country. At novel's end, humanity is making slow progress toward this goal.
Regardless of this upbeat ending, Wyndham’s novel asks hard questions about the responsibility of the individual within society and also posits several scenarios for post-apocalyptic survival. The answers vary. "One for all and all for one" is not particularly popular as an option; there are, quite simply, not enough sighted in this new world to provide for the blinded. And it is always easier to invoke the strategies of exclusion than inclusion. As we have seen, Bill’s initial response to this situation is Social Darwinism; he cannot convince himself that sacrificing his freedom of action will be at all productive. Thus, the Darwinian natural selection process kicks in rather rapidly; unless the blind can rely on a sighted person to get them to safety, they are doomed because they are incapable of adapting to their environment. It is also highly individualistic until he clearly sees that individuals cannot successfully survive. Bill Masen may be heartless, but is he wrong? Quite clearly, the old-fashioned idea of community is doomed. Masen is correct: no matter how many sighted try to keep the blind going, the task cannot be accomplished. He does, however, value certain blinded individuals, which is more than Torrance does.
This novel offers a dis/ease provoking view of the various political systems extant in post-World War II societies. The old models do not work, and the self-sufficient models do not work either. The residents of Shirning reject feudal oligarchies, but the "better society" with which they cast their lot may or may not work.
The novel’s final lines, however, written some time later, place this novel firmly in the affirmative model; it is no accident that these lines echo Churchill's attitude toward the defeat of the Nazis in World War II:
“We believe now that we can see our way, but there is still a lot of work to be done before the day when we [. . . ] will cross the narrow straits on a great crusade to drive the triffids back [. . . ] until we have wiped out the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.” (Wyndham, p. 191)
Clearly, the move within the plot structure is largely affirmative; isolated units have combined and are working together toward a common goal; the dis/easeful choices made have tainted the efforts, however, and should remind us that dystopias are never easily reformed.
John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass, on the other hand, looks to the past for its societal model. Like Triffids, most of Britain’s population is expendable because most people do not have the wherewithal to raise food, and therefore are not worth bothering about. Britain has lived on imported food for centuries and the sudden cessation of imports makes the starvation of millions a cold reality. Since a society now exists where land ownership and the ability to defend the land are of prime importance, it is unsurprising that feudalism/manorialism successfully raise their ugly heads. After all, in this society, farmland is a rare commodity that can be taken and held by force. A man who has access to land, as John Custance does, and the will to take any measures necessary to ensure his and his family’s survival will undoubtedly attract others, not as well equipped, who are willing to sink to serfdom to survive.
No Blade of Grass has a similar premise to Triffids; as I mentioned earlier, a virus wipes out all the grass plants in most of the civilized world. The opening chapters of the novel describe John and David’s Custance’s childhood, and despite an apparently stable and idyllic setting, foreshadow several important events. David’s grandfather leaves him a farm in the north of England, a farm in a bowl-like valley, with one entrance, also guarded by the swift and dangerous Lepe river. John falls in and discovers that despite the treacherous current, a sandbar in the middle of the river provides safe footing. Years pass, and John goes on to become an engineer, living a busy and productive life in London, while David wants nothing more than the farming life, a life in which he is fairly self-sufficient. But David is a shrewd and educated man, who understands the ramifications of the virus; he takes steps to insure the defensibility of his farm, Blind Gill, and adapts to the changing environment, growing potatoes instead of wheat and slaughtering all his cattle. Thus, when the Chung-Li virus is wiping out grass and Britain is facing literal famine, deprived of her imports, David Custance is in remarkably good shape, as is John, his brother. As happens in Triffids, the move towards demonization and demarcation is apparent from the start. The Chung-Li virus first attacks rice plants in China, and while the main characters feel sorry for the Chinese, as David Custance says, in response to his sister-in-law’s comment about laughing and talking while little children starve, “Not much else we can do, is there, my dear?” As David further points out, “It’s rough on the Chinese, but it could have been a lot worse.” “Yes,’ [replies Ann] “it could have been us instead.” (Christopher, p. 14) And, of course, as the best scientific efforts to kill or contain the virus fail and a horrifying mutation which kills all grass plants spreads like wildfire, soon enough it is them. And while one can understand a certain degree of indifference to people on the other side of the world, and Commies at that, who in many ways brought this problem on themselves, the same closing spiral occurs as the muted phase five Chung-li virus hits Britain. The initial response of the main characters, characters we have come to like and relate to, is an almost immediate concern with their own survival and that of their families. As in Triffids, the importance of “the rest” dwindles to nothing.
John’s best friend Roger is a Public Information Officer in the British Government; in exchange for confidential information (kept from the vast majority of the British public), John agrees to provide sanctuary at David’s farm for Roger and his family. Thus, John is aware of the worsening situation, the collapse of the efforts to stop the virus and also of the government’s plans to nuke the major cities of London. The bargain between John and his erstwhile best friend indicates the first of many casualties: sanctuary in exchange for privileged information is a poor substitute for friendship. And while it is hard to blame a man for looking after his own, it is also hard to contemplate the price others will pay. When John goes to pick up his daughter Mary from boarding school, the best he can do is issue an oblique warning to the Headmistress; when, on the way out of London, he picks up his son, he includes his son’s best friend and leaves the rest of the children to abandonment and death. And Wyndham’s text resonates uncomfortably: we can save some, but who, and how do we choose?
Like Triffids, much of the novel deals with the journey north and the various strategies people are using to survive, but even less concern with a moral calculus exists in this rather dark tale. John and Roger end up adding the very unpleasant sociopath Henry Pirrie to the group because he has access to guns and no hesitation about using them. Pirrie kills his unfaithful wife, Millicent, and John needs him too badly to object. They are robbed of their cars and goods by armed brigands, and Ann and Mary, John’s wife and daughter are raped; they kill people at isolated farmsteads, for food and guns, without hesitation. In fine, they have a first hand view of civilization falling around their ears. If these characters evince no sense of obligations to others, neither do their fellow citizens. Like Triffids, the distinctly unadmirable side of humanity rapidly becomes apparent.
In No Blade of Grass, however, a different view of politics rapidly emerges. Because it is apparent that someone must lead and make decisions, John and Roger toss a coin for the leadership. John “wins” and gets to make all the unpleasant decisions. In short order a gap has opened between him and the rest of the party; almost immediately, he becomes a feudal seigneur, a part firmly rejected by Bill Masen. He and he alone decides what will happens; and again, while we can accept that he will do what he has to do to get “his people” to safety, his humanity sloughs off before our eyes. The man who, early in the journey, takes his best friend’s son Spooks with him, because Spooks cannot survive on his own, has, in a matter of three days, turned into a man who is solely concerned with advantage. This charitable action not only occurs early in the novel but is the sole charitable impulse he allows himself. Olivia, Roger’s wife, is determined to take Jane, the teenage daughter of the people John killed, along with her. John acquiesces reluctantly only when it becomes apparent that either the girl joins them or Olivia and Roger stay behind. Later, when Pirrie decides Jane will make a nice second wife, John refuses to interfere, saying, “If there had been ten Janes and he wanted them all, he could have had them. Pirrie’s worth more than they would be.” (p. 127) When he wants recruits to make sure he and his group can get through to Blind Gill, he rejects any group without arms. The presence of several young children does not enter the calculation. And when his wife, Ann, protests, he reminds her that:
“I have to do what’s best for us. There are millions of others – these are only the ones we see.”
“Charity is for those we see.”
“I told you – charity, pity – they come from a steady income and money to spare. We’re all bankrupt now.” (p. 138)
He is, however, willing to let them stand with his group for the sake of numbers when he confronts another armed group. He is also more than willing to allow Pirrie to shoot the leader of the armed group. When the groups join together, John magnanimously decides he can afford to permit the previously rejected group to join. And as the narrator informs us, “John could see how the feudal leader, his strength an overplus, might have given aid to the weak as an act of simple vanity. After enthronement, the tones of the suppliant beggar were doubly sweet.” (Christopher, p. 142) Noah Blennit, the head of the suppliants, says, “We’re all very much beholden to you, Mr. Custance. We’ll serve you well, every one of us.” (Christopher, p. 143) Several points are disturbing in these passages. To a greater degree than in Triffids, humanity has dropped several self-defining qualities in the thrust toward survival. Values that have stood for 30 centuries are rejected out of hand. One shudders to think what a devout Christian would say to the idea that charity depends on money to spare; the idea of the intrinsic worth of each individual is another cherished value that is ruthlessly discarded. Individual worth is computed on ownership of useful material goods; feudalism, with its overtones of droit de seigneur and serfs’ obligations died out 600 years ago. But in this world, as in feudal Europe, the man who holds land tenure can disregard 30 centuries of civilized values with impunity.
John grows increasingly exasperated by his wife’s outmoded ideas of justice; Ann, his wife, and Olivia, Roger’s wife, loathe Pirrie, and want to provide Jane with a nice sharp knife. John forbids this action, again on the ground that he needs Pirrie, and says that if Jane kills Pirrie he will leave her behind. When Olivia points out that Pirrie killed his wife Millicent, and paid no penalty, John retorts, “Can’t you see that fair shares and justice don’t work until you have walls to keep the barbarians out?” (p. 151). Again, the distance between John Custance, feudal lord, and Ann’s husband and Roger’s friend is starkly delineated. Ann comments, “Note the sense of dedication, most striking in the conviction that what he thinks is right because he thinks it.” To John’s hot rejoinder, “It’s right in itself! Can you find an argument to refute it?” she replies, “Not that you would appreciate.” (p. 152) And John, a far from stupid and mindlessly power hungry man, looks across an unbridgeable gap at his closest friends. And although John has always claimed that things will return to normal, that they can forget all the unpleasantness – once they are safe at Blind Gill, he repeatedly claims things will be normal and he will return to the old John, it is very apparent that the characters in the book, the narrator controlling the tale, and the readers cannot believe normalcy is possible.
As in Triffids, the reader is torn two ways. We live in a society that pays at least lip service to the idea that charity does not depend entirely on extra income, but on one’s obligations to one’s fellow citizens, that those citizens are equal and worthwhile, that all deserve a voice in government, and that law reigns supreme. But it is hard to fault John for being determined to get “his people” to safety, whatever it takes. And while what it takes is sometimes morally repugnant, and such actions as shooting and looting seemingly unconscionable, we may well reach a bedrock conclusion that we would do the same things ourselves.
The group who so willingly pledge John fealty, for example, is clearly unable to survive on its own. They are headed somewhere to find a farm where they can work for food. They do not seem to grasp the extent of the cataclysm. When the Custance group first sees them, they are wheeling perambulators full of useless household goods with them. When Olivia wants to allow the group to join them for the sake of the children, saying, “I can’t see that it would hurt to let them come along. And they might be of some help,” John refuses, saying, “They let the boy come out on the road in tennis shoes [ . . .] in this weather. You should have understood by now, Olivia, that it’s not only the weakest but the least efficient as well who are going to go to the wall. They can’t help us; they could hinder.” To the boy’s mother’s excuse that she told him to put his boots on, didn’t notice that he didn’t and “daren’t go back”, he replies that “there’s no scope for forgetting things anymore [. . .] And every one of us might die as a result. [. . .] I don’t feel like taking the chance. I don’t feel like taking any chances.” ( Christopher, p. 137) And Roger backs him up, making the important point that as boss, John takes everything on his conscience, leaving the rest of them off the moral hook. If rank has privilege it also has responsibility, and John gets that along with his “baronial” status.
When the group arrives at Blind Gill, they are refused entrance. David Custance, John’s brother, no longer owns the farm. The farm is now run by committee, and while the men manning the machine gun posts are willing to let John, Ann and the two children in, they adamantly refuse to allow anyone else in.
When John asks David to let “his lot” in, David refuses, explaining that the land will not support 34 more, and adding “these [your lot] aren’t the first we’ve had to turn away. There have been others. Some of them were relatives of people already here.” When John says, “It’s your land,” David replies, “No one holds land except by consent. They are in the majority,” thus revealing a problem with democracy as well as autocracy. (p. 169) David’s solution is for John to abandon his followers to their fate. John, however, hard and callous we may have found him, cannot do that. And one sees the essential conflict that has dogged the reader through the novel. And while John is tempted, especially when the others tell him to take the chance, he sees Pirrie’s hand resting lightly on the rifle butt and he wonders “how he would have reacted if he had had the real instead of the apparent freedom of action. The feudal baron, he thought, and ready to sell his followers out as cheerfully as that.” (p. 172) In the end, John’s followers take the place by subterfuge and storm and in the battle both David Custance and Pirrie die. The novel closes with John retaining Pirrie’s rifle, and by extension Pirrie’s pragmatic moral philosophy, saying that Davey can have it later. Ann, who is still desperately clinging to a hope of peace and civilization, exclaims “No! He won’t need it!” and John replies, “Enoch was a man of peace. He lived in the city which his father built for him. But he kept his father’s dagger in his belt.” (Christopher, p. 182)
Perhaps the most evocative image in this novel occurs when John leans down to kiss his dead brother. “He had kissed another dead face (a young soldier killed in their escape) only a few days before, but centuries lay between the two salutations.” (Christopher, p. 182)
The end leaves the reader hanging and, in my case, dangling uncomfortably. Can John and his followers revert to the civilized values they have so callously cast off and discard the qualities they have so cavalierly commandeered? A recurring theme in this novel, as in The Day of the Triffids is what constitutes morality, how one holds it, and whether one can regain it. All through No Blade of Grass, through theft, rape, pillage, looting, murder, and the final battle that costs John his brother, both he and Ann hold tightly to the belief that once they reach Blind Gill, they can return to the civilized standards of society they have had to discard. Safety for John and his followers will wipe out leaving their friends and neighbours to face possible nuclear annihilation, leaving children to starve while they save their own, and all the other offences against law and morality they have committed to win safety.
But the novel itself calls this idea into strong question. Although the characters consistently claim that this atavistic reversion is ‘temporary”, neither the setting nor the scenes of brutal expediency, with the emphasis on the doomed groups who still do not understand the extent of doomsday, and the bombers headed for London, repeated consistently throughout the novel, allow this idea to stand unchallenged.
When everyone is safely ensconced in Blind Gill, will life, can life, really return to normal? John is, as Ann recognizes, a medieval chieftain. “When you’re King of Blind Gill, how long will it be, I wonder, before they make a crown for you?” (p. 182). If this is the case, and his followers agree that it is, how can he possibly retain any hopes of a normal existence, as “a potato and beet farmer [. . .] a dull, yawning, clay-fingered old man” he claims he will become? (p. 182) Ann desperately wants life to return to “normal,” a clearly impossible hope. By the novel’s end John’s children treat him with unnatural deference, and even his oldest friends, Roger and Olivia, acknowledge an inferior status. If his family and his oldest friends can no longer relate to him in an equal relationship, even a primus inter pares relationship, but clearly acknowledge him as the unquestioned leader, and he is the lord of the manor with serfs knuckling under and truckling to him, dependent upon him for their very potatoes, which is already happening, how can anyone delude themselves into believing in a return to equality? Ann is more correct than she knows when she says, “You aren’t just a person yourself any longer. You’re a figurehead as well.” (p. 182) And while it is almost impossible for anyone reading the book to either entirely sympathize with or entirely reject John Custance, the unwilling conclusion I at least reach is that Blind Gill is a farm and not the Garden of Eden. The prelapsarian past is gone beyond recall. John will not be able to lay his responsibility down, nor will he wish to lay his power down.
Thus, both novels reach the same uncomfortable conclusions. When the chips are down and total catastrophe hits, human beings will slough off the societal standards they have held to and revert to the tribe, the family, allowing room outside that for the useful and the useful only. Although Triffids attempts a progressive answer – make a new society when the old one falls apart, and Grass postulates a reversion, the same exact themes occur and recur. According to these two texts (and numerous others), faced with surviving, the most charitable and humane of us abandon the beliefs that make us human and revert to self-preservation.
It is easy to say these books are not only fictions but unlikely fictions at that, science fiction/apocalyptic texts that have nothing to do with everyday life. And on the face of it, dismissing them as fiction does seem quite reasonable. Semi-sentient ambulatory plants. Satellites that blind. Scientists who fail to address the consequences of knowledge. A rampaging plant virus. Political cover-ups. Governmental genocide . . .
It is easy to point to the generally decent behaviour of the typical human being. No organization solicits help for the needy without at least some response; many people routinely send a portion of their income, whether they can really spare it or not, to a charitable cause or three and as routinely give money directly to the homeless. Such charitable actions as the outpouring of aid in response to 9/11, the millions of dollars poured into overseas aid, the swift charitable response to every disaster on the face of the earth – all would seem to argue that these texts need not be taken as serious attempts to examine morality.
And yet, what in these texts could not happen? The last fifty-odd years have illustrated man’s increasingly horrific ability to manipulate the engines of destruction; as scientists continue to expand their knowledge, who is to say what can and cannot happen? Twenty years ago, who would have thought of instant inexpensive global communications systems? And yet, how many people have, and routinely use, Internet access. Forty years ago, the idea of antibiotic resistant killer bacteria was preposterous, not to mention science fiction. Who ever believed in people-eating bacteria on a rampage?
The most disturbing aspects to these texts, however, is neither the means to dystopia or the ends by which it is achieved; the dis/ease arises from contemplating the situation. It is the knowledge that these fictions, rather than reflecting unreal horror, are metaphorically or allegorically discussing everyday horror that causes dis/ease. (Holland-Toll, p. 9) If total catastrophe did ensue, whatever it might entail, contemplating the actions you might “have to” take, the people you might be “forced” to discard, and the kind of person you might become would be the real cause of reader discomfort.
If you were the only sighted person in your immediate neighbourhood, for whom would you care? Your family? Any close friends? Almost certainly. But what about the next door neighbour? The children across the street? The family on the next block, in the subdivision, town, city, country? If you knew that your government was going to commit genocide against its own citizens, would you tell everyone? Or might you look at your spouse and children and decide to save them at any cost? And once you decided that, every action in either text almost inevitably follows. Once you decide that anyone outside the tribe is expendable, a dehumanized “Other,” you might well leave the neighborhood to starve. After all, you might well say, as Josella said, “And even if we could save a few, which are we going to choose? And who are we to choose? And how long could we do it, anyway?”(Wyndham, p. 74) Or, as John Custance says, “I told you – charity, pity – they come from a steady income and money to spare. We’re all bankrupt now.” (Christopher, p. 138) And the worst aspect of either text is that no one can state that those actions are wrong. As Wyndham points out, feeding millions of blinded only postpones the inevitable; as Christopher points out, two-thirds of the population will die – whether from nuclear bombs or starvation. And within the paradigms of practicality, why should you not seize a chance for you and your family to live? It serves no moral good to allow your family to die when you could save them. Adding to the death toll does not constitute morality. And yet text after text upon which we base our idea of humanity says that we owe our neighbour the same treatment we would have meted out to us.
Thus, these texts produce “cultural dis/ease”, as I postulated earlier. The extreme elements on which these texts are based induce strong feelings of horror and, hopefully, moral revulsion in the reader, and also generate a significant degree of unresolved dis/ease. The degree of unresolved dis/ease is significant enough that the reader cannot simply gloss it over and return to business as usual. Such texts haunt the reader, not only questioning as they do the societal constructs which we accept as the basis of day-to-day life, but revealing these social constructs to be as moral bankrupt as, say, John Custance.
Holland-Toll, Linda J. (2001) As American As Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Constructing Community in Contemporary American Horror Fiction (Bowling green: Bowling Green State U Popular P).
Quinn, Naomi and Dorothy Holland (1987) ‘Culture and Cognition’,
Cultural Models in Language and Thought (New York: Cambridge
2 As any botanist will quickly inform you, the loss of rice would
be significant; the loss of all grasses, however unlikely, disastrous,
particularly for countries that, unlike the U.S., import a great deal
of food and have too many people and/or too little arable. Corn, wheat,
rye, barley, oats and pasturage feed would all disappear. However,
such crops as soybean, not a significant food crop in the West in
the 1950s, could fill in the gaps.
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