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Invisible Ink: No 198 - John Christopher


Christopher Fowler
Sunday 10 November 2013 01:00 GMT

If the name John Christopher is not familiar, try Stanley Winchester, Hilary Ford, William Godfrey, William Vine, Peter Graaf, Anthony Rye or his birth-name, Sam Youd. Was there ever an author with so many pseudonyms?

He was Lancastrian by birth, and Youd was an old Cheshire name. As a schoolboy, he loved serious science-fiction and produced his own magazine, The Fantast. After serving during the Second World War, he pursued a writing career and was granted a scholarship to do so – back when such things were not uncommon. His first novel, The Winter Swan, was produced at the age of 27, but SF was about to enter its great, golden years, and he wrote The Year of the Comet, followed by his best work, The Death of Grass, in 1956.

In this dark, post-apocalyptic novel, a virus kills off plant life, causing worldwide famine after it infects East Asian rice crops. America imposes a quarantine, and the novel follows an engineer and a civil servant as they battle their way across an England descending into complete anarchy. The book presents a moral conundrum; what would you sacrifice to ensure your own survival?

Christopher’s novel was published by Michael Joseph, who had scored repeated successes with John Wyndham, another apocalyptic SF writer. The Death of Grass touched a raw nerve, appearing at a time when the idea of nuclear Armageddon was posing a very real threat to the nation’s peace of mind. The first of the Aldermarston marches, in which tens of thousands of people protested against the hydrogen bomb, was just two years away. The novel was published in the US as No Blade of Grass and was filmed in 1970 by Cornel Wilde. It is regarded as a modern classic, unlike Christopher’s The Little People, which featured Nazi gnomes.

A decade later, Christopher began writing SF for teenagers, at the time a rather far-sighted move, and produced his best-remembered series, the “Tripods” books. These were created as a trilogy but later expanded to include a fourth volume, and told the story of giant alien walking machines that strode through the devastated English countryside tackling resistance groups. As in The Hunger Games, and even the Harry Potter books, there’s an enforced sporting event that carries grave consequences for mortals. The Tripods TV series was subsequently made and is fondly remembered.

Youd averaged four novels a year, which is why he adopted the pseudonyms. One of the early great teen SF writers, he died last year.

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