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3 January 2012

John Christopher (real name Christopher Samuel Youd) was born in Lancashire on April 16th 1922. His surname is of Dutch Origin. Writing as John Christopher, the British author is best known for his SF (adult and YA) novels which have won a number of awards. For completists – Youd has written under his own name, and under the following additional pseudonyms: Stanley Winchester, Hilary Ford, William Godfrey, William Vine, Peter Graaf, Peter Nichols, and Anthony Rye.
To my mind the great strengths of Christopher’s work are his backgrounds and characters. At a time when quite a number of authors were producing ‘end of the world’ novels, Christopher managed to come up with fresh background angles, and characters that were far from perfect but very believable.
In The Death of Grass he begins with two small boys taken to spend time on their grandfather’s farm after a long family estrangement. The grandfather considers both and makes an arbitrary decision to leave his money and land to one of the children only – as the child who wants to farm and will be good at the work. The boy, David, does inherit and settles to a solitary life as a farmer at Blind Gill, an extremely isolated and closed-in farm which can be easily fortified. The other brother, John, becomes a Civil Engineer, marries, fathers a girl and a boy and who – crucial to the story – has a good friend, Roger, who works for the Government.
In China a catastrophe is developing as a virus attacks the rice crop, and attempts to kill the virus only result in it becoming far worse, mutating into a new form that now kills grass, wheat, rice and other similar species. In a year patches of it are appearing in England, and rationing begins. Roger then comes to John and his family to say that there is a Government plan to kill a major portion of the big-cities’ populations so that the remainder of the people might survive, and that if they get out of London immediately to avoid the bombers they may be able to reach David’s farm.
It requires the addition of two people, a gunsmith and his wife, to the party so that they will have weapons, and killing is required to get them out of the city and retrieve their children who are in boarding schools outside London. As they trek across the country towards David and sanctuary at Blind Gill (acquiring hangers-on as they go) they realize that with civilization failing they must, when necessary, cast off their own civilized behaviour in order to survive. They reach the farm, find that the expected welcome is not there, and they have a brutal choice. To force entry, or leave and die.
This book has a number of characters, all diverse, and each fully-rounded as a person. In places it was savage or as savage as a book published in 1956 was permitted to be. And while not graphic, Christopher certainly managed to make such events as theft, murder, rape, (including that of a child,) and the characters’ choice of abandoning children to die, clear to a reader.
I was caught through the book by the characters’ growth and changes, and by the alterations in character as those who had been decent men and women were worn down to elemental animals fighting to live and protect their families. The author also holds up the suggested shape of the future for those who survive, and I found that shape was believable, even likely. This book is a fine piece of writing and I re-read it regularly.
The World in Winter was another solid book. And it did what none of the others in the sub-genre had done, (or none that I know of) it had the refugees from much of Europe and Britain fleeing to Africa, with some excellent and unpleasantly clear-eyed chapters on what it would be like to be despised refugees in the countries there. Towards the end of this book a group of Nigerian soldiers and a TV producer, with the main white character, are on an expedition back to England, and detour (after mechanical problems with their hovercraft) to one of the Channel islands. (I have often wondered if this chapter was not the spark behind Christopher’s book written three years later, A Wrinkle in the Skin.)
In that book – A Wrinkle in the Skin – a massive earthquake occurs which produces dry land between Britain and France, and leaves the Channel islands high and dry. Most of the population are killed in their homes, and while never specifically covered, the definite impression is made that this quake has ben worldwide and has wrecked the whole of civilization.
However the story is about one man, the boy he rescues, and finally several small groups and single people they encounter. By restricting most of the events to small numbers and a comparatively small area, Christopher makes the book intimate, and while you aren’t always certain that you like the main character, Matthew Cotter, you do understand him.
This ability to show you a person, his/her backgrounds and motivations, was one of the author’s great strengths, and he tends too, to take a theme angle that isn’t what you expected. I recommend in particular The Death of Grass, and A Wrinkle in the Skin.

Bibliography

The 21st Century (1954) (short story collection)
The Year of the Comet (US title Planet in Peril, 1955)
The Death of Grass (1956), Michael Joseph (UK) US title – No Blade of Grass (1957), Simon & Schuster (US)
The Caves of Night (1958)
A Scent of White Poppies (1959)
The Long Voyage (US title The White Voyage, 1960)
The World in Winter (US title The Long Winter, 1962)
Cloud on Silver (US title Sweeney’s Island, 1964)
The Possessors (1964)
A Wrinkle in the Skin (US title The Ragged Edge, 1965)
The Little People (1966)
The Tripods trilogy (expanded to quatrology, 1988)
The White Mountains (1967) Macmillan (US); Hamish Hamilton (UK)
35th anniversary edition, with revised text and preface by author, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 9780689855047 (2003)
The City of Gold and Lead (1967) Macmillan (US); Hamish Hamilton (UK)
The Pool of Fire (1968) Macmillan (US); Hamish Hamilton (UK)
When the Tripods Came (prequel) (1988)
Pendulum (1968)
The Lotus Caves (1969) Macmillan (US); Hamish Hamilton (UK) ISBN 0-241-01729-7
The Guardians (1970)
The Sword of the Spirits trilogy
The Prince In Waiting (1970)
Beyond the Burning Lands (1971)
The Sword of the Spirits (1972)

In the Beginning Longman (1972) ISBN 0-582-53726-6
Dom and Va (1973)
Wild Jack (1974)
Empty World (1977)
The Fireball trilogy
Fireball (1981), E. P. Dutton, ISBN 0-525-29738-3
New Found Land (1983) Dutton (US) ISBN 0-525-44049-6. Gollancz (UK),
ISBN 0-575-03222-7 (1986) Dutton (US) ISBN 0-525-44227-8; Viking Kestrel (UK), ISBN 0-670-81030-4
A Dusk of Demons (1993)
Bad Dream (2003)

Film and television adaptions
The Death of Grass was made into a film, No Blade of Grass, in 1970, by Cornel Wilde.
The Tripods was partially developed into a British TV series.
Empty World was developed into a 1987 TV movie in Germany, Leere Welt.
The Guardians was made into a 1986 TV series in Germany, Die Wahter.

6 Comments »

  1. Gosh! I didn’t realise he’d been so prolific. I have “The Death Of Grass” and “A Wrinkle In The Skin” (very appropriate for NZ) and the tripods trilogy of course. But I didn’t know about any of the others…


    -Alan

    Comment by Alan Robson — 8 January 2012 @ 23:31

  2. nor had I realized how much he’d done until I started writing the article. Doing this series has been fun and very informative. I’ve also been asked where I find these authors/their books. It’s one of the advantages of being my age. I discovered SF at 16, and in New Zealand at that time many book exchanges had secondhand SF books and pulp magazines dating back to the 1940s, or even, here and there, to the 1930s. I bought, read, bought, read, and where I really liked something it became a permanancy on my shelves.
    (And in the 1980s, an older acquaintance who collected SF died, and his widow gave me some of his books. Most I kept were hardcovers from the UK SF Book club running over the 1950s-1970s – and in ‘as new’ condition. I added around 50 of those to my own library, and so it goes…
    When I started doing this series, I pulled books that fitted my parameters for the series from my own library and did an article on the author using review/s of his/her books that I had as examples of the author’s work. Basic parameters have been that the author either; wrote a long time ago and most of the books aren’t around much any more/wrote only a small body of work that may have been missed by many readers/is obscure for some other reason. And – that I liked at least some of the author’s work a lot/that I think (at least some of) their work is very good/and influential or important for some reason such as where/when/why/under what circumstances it was written.
    And no, I’m nowhere near running out of authors as yet!

    Comment by lyn — 9 January 2012 @ 15:46

  3. I think one of my favourite “have you overlooked” is Arthur Sellings. Are you planning on doing him?


    -Alan

    Comment by Alan Robson — 11 January 2012 @ 14:58

  4. small problem, after a quick check he sounds like an author I’d have enjoyed, but thus far I’ve never to my knowledge, read anything of his. I’ve been confining the series to the parameters mentioned, because I wanted to feel that I could honestly recommend the author’s work as something that I already read and re-read. I don’t feel I can add AS to the series, unless I do find and read something of his and find that I really like it. If you or anyone else wants to send me work by a favourite author – on loan or as a gift – I’ll very happily read it, and if it fits my criteria, add that author to my OL series.

    Comment by lyn — 11 January 2012 @ 19:59

  5. I just learned that John Christopher died recently. Sad…

    http://www.locusmag.com/News/2012/02/samuel-youd-aka-john-christopher-1922-2012/


    -Alan

    Comment by Alan Robson — 6 February 2012 @ 12:06

  6. I checked and was sad to see that you were correct. Locus on-line notes that
    “Christopher Samuel Youd, 89, better known by his pseudonym John Christopher, died February 3, 2012 in Bath England.”
    I find it ironic that I posted my OL item on him exactly a month before he died. Still, his last work appeared when he was 80, he was 89 when he died, and that’s not a bad writing record and age to reach.

    Comment by lyn — 6 February 2012 @ 21:13

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