In June 2017, the New Yorker published a piece by David Cantwell which discusses the work of John Christopher/Sam Youd, with particular reference to the Tripods trilogy. As David points out: ‘Rereading the book today, though, what’s most striking is its ultimate lesson. At the end of the series, after our young heroes have defeated the Tripod rulers, Will notices troubling political developments: renewed tribalism, authoritarianism, and nationalism among some members of the resistance. Since the Presidential election last November, many people have drawn on dystopian fiction … to explain our predicament. The implication sometimes seems to be that we can restore democracy by rising up to defeat our newly elected leader … The Tripods Trilogy makes the case that sustaining democracy is not so simple.’
In the far future, humanity has expanded out to explore the outer reaches of the solar system, leaving behind the radioactively poisoned planet once known as Earth, now more commonly referred to as the ‘Forbidden World’. When Captain Robert Newsam’s cousin disappears in mysterious circumstances, Capt Newsam comes to discover that the authorized version isn’t necessarily the truth … In 2010, Cornucopia Radio broadcast an updated version of the John Christopher short story, originally broadcast by ABC Radio in 1953.
Science-fiction was where Sam Youd’s writing career began, and here artist Harry Turner’s 1941 diary chronicles events from those heady days of sci-fandom, when magazines like ‘The Fantast’ were duplicated by hand and Sam’s myopia barred him from a flying career in the RAF.
In ‘Fearful Associations in John Christopher’s Middle-Grade Science Fiction’, the LA Review of Books discusses two of John Christopher’s YA novels, ‘The Guardians’ and ‘The Lotus Caves’. How does a young boy maintain a sense of self, Jens Lloyd asks, while associating with others? How does he navigate between the poles of assimilation and individuality? When should individualism be feared? When should assimilation be welcomed? ‘If assimilation entails cohabitation with a benevolent interstellar vegetable,’ he concludes, ‘then I am, at least, going to consider my options.’
Wyrd Britain is a blog concerned with ‘stories in, of, from and about the stranger places of Britain … A Britain where the ghosts are unquiet, where the woods are alive and where distinctions between the present, the future and the past are permeable.’ ‘The World in Winter’, the blogger concludes, is going to haunt him for some time to come …
Steve Dewey in his WordandLightSmithing blog takes a look at John Christopher’s ‘Wrinkle in the skin’ and enjoys the prose as much as the story: ‘The prose is as clean and lean as in “The Death of Grass.” It has a kind of traditional, British style I associate with Orwell, Greene and Somerset Maugham.’
Digital artist Damian Mark Whittle explains how ‘Death of Grass’ bridges the gap ‘between the “cosy catastrophes” of Wyndham and the dystopian modernity of Ballard … In some respects, the book could be seen as a reaction against works like “The Day of the Triffids” in which a civilized few retreat to a cheerfully isolated existence with chaos kept outside. Here, the chaos is everywhere and retreat is not an option.’
In her blog ‘I can never [read all the books I want’ – Sylvia Plath], literature enthusiast Ruth compares and contrasts two seminal works of dystopian fiction, ‘The Day of the Triffids’ by John Wyndham, and ‘The Death of Grass’. ‘If my fifteen year old self was reviewing the books,’ she writes, ‘this post would be very different, as my opinion has completely reversed in the intervening decades.’
Leaves & Pages blogger turns his attention to The SYLE Press’s new edition of ‘The White Voyage’, and also reprints his post on ‘The World in Winter’. ‘This is an author worth investigating for the frequent excellence of his creative ideas and his sober examination of human emotional motivations.’
Last autumn, blogger M Porcius (‘I hope to include spoilers in every post. The whale beats Ahab, by the way.’) came across a rare hardback edition of ‘No Blade of Grass’. Intrigued by the jacket, ‘with its unusual come-on (“this jacket description has made no attempt to give you any idea of the plot”)’, he sets out to discover if the text lives up to the hype.
Ethan Alter, writer for Yahoo TV, focuses on a piece of previously unadapted material ‘we’d love to see become a TV series’ – John Christopher’s ‘The Sword of the Spirits’ trilogy – with Rian Johnson directing, he suggests, and Bruce Willis as the Prince’s father!
Twenty years on, sci-fi and fantasy writer Jo Walton re-visits John Christopher’s ‘Prince in Waiting’ trilogy which ‘I read first when I was ten at most, and which I read a million times before I was fifteen’. ‘I was expecting the suck fairy to have been at them,’ she says, ‘specifically, I wasn’t expecting them to have the depth and subtlety that I remembered … However, I was pleasantly surprised. These really are good books.’
Online magazine on books, the arts and culture ‘The Millions’ interviews David Mitchell, author of ‘Cloud Atlas’: ‘Actually, I read a really good book published in the 1950s called The Death of Grass, where a killer virus doesn’t kill us, humans, as they do in many contemporary stories, but it gets the crops we eat. That’s more interesting to me …’
Blogger David Moody lists five novels about the end of the world ‘that you probably haven’t read but really should’ – including ‘The Death of Grass’. ‘A startling read,’ he concludes, ‘that holds a mirror up to our dinner plate, making the reader immediately grateful for the tins they have in the cupboard, and which haunts every mouthful thereafter.’
The only true judge of an author’s merits is posterity. But why, DJ Taylor asks, do some literary reputations last while others founder? Whilst the likes of Angus Wilson and Iris Murdoch may be on the wane, ‘a hitherto neglected talent can suddenly find that circumstance has given their work a new relevance, as happened to John Christopher’s eco-thrillers “The Death of Grass” and “The World in Winter”, seized on by a new audience of environmentally conscious readers in the 2000s.’
HiLowBrow picks the best 10 Adventure Stories from 1964. Sharing the honours with Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, J G Ballard and William Burroughs is John Christopher’s ‘Sweeney’s Island’, the original US title of ‘Cloud on Silver’, now available again from The SYLE Press.
Having previously reviewed John Christopher’s ‘The Death of Grass’, writer Jasmin Kirkbride takes a look at Hilary Ford’s ‘Sarnia’. ‘There is no doubt to me that Sam Youd does an exemplary job of getting himself into the female mindset, on a par for me with Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha”. A must-read for fans of all literature, but expect echoes of the book’s implications to haunt you for a good while after reading. It’s been a week and I’m still thinking about it!’
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?’ asks The Independent.
Children’s librarian Stephanie Whelan takes a look at the different ways in which cover artists have approached ‘The White Mountains’, since its publication in 1967.
Noah Berlatsky of Wired Magazine compares John Christopher’s Tripods with the Harry Potter books and The Hunger Games. He concludes: ‘If I ever had to be a hero, I’m pretty sure I’d be more like Will than like Harry or Ender or Katniss — which is to say, I’d be clumsy, impatient, selfish, whiny, and generally bad at it. More like Will, who screws up and regrets it but never actually changes; Will who has no destiny, but does what he can to help out the people who do.’
Writer, artist and animator Niel Bushnell shares some of the email correspondence he had with Sam Youd/John Christopher, ‘a fascinating insight into the later years of a mature and successful writer’.
The blogger Barnflakes showcases four different covers of ‘The Death of Grass’ (US title: ‘No Blade of Grass’).
The Duck Loving Book Addict comes across ‘The Death of Grass’ in Chichester Library: ‘one of the bleakest books I have ever had the pleasure to read’.
The Reflexiones Finales blog (‘General Thoughts on Final Thoughts in a Holistic Sense’) takes a look at John Christopher’s ‘Empty World’, ‘almost the archetype of the pandemic apocalypse-in-progress novel’. For his thoughts on ‘No Blade of Grass’, see here.
The New York Times’ obituary of Sam Youd/John Christopher.
Brian Aldiss leads tributes to a prolific author – of ‘The Tripods’ and more than 50 other novels – who ‘beat description’.
Writer Christopher Priest considers the life and works of Sam Youd/John Christopher three days after his death.
Guardian writer Damien Walter considers the work of John Christopher: ‘With the sad news of John Christopher’s death this week, it seems that the generation of British authors who created science-fiction with such humour and subtlety and willingness to be critical of authority is being lost.’
Blogger Mixed Pickles gives his ‘unputdownability’ rating on ‘The Death of Grass’: ‘You have to pause for breath regularly.’
Five podcasts on website ‘Highway to Mars – Exploring the Universe of Science-Fiction’ which discuss John Christopher’s Tripods series.
US crime writer Wallace Stroby considers his own preference for British science-fiction, ‘especially the socially conscious apocalyptic fiction that sprang up in the immediate post-WWII era’, with particular reference to the writings of John Christopher, who was ‘responsible for a handful of extraordinary post-apocalyptic adult novels’.
The Caustic Cover Critic – ‘one man’s endless ranting about book design’ – takes a brief look at the works of John Christopher, adult and juvenile. ‘If you have children you’d like to inspire with an introduction to world-ending literature, try the “The Tripods”, or “Empty World”, or “The Prince in Waiting” (civilisation ended by aliens, plague and tectonics (again) respectively). They’ll thank you, or else spend the rest of their lives plagued by apocalyptic nightmares. It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.’
Children’s writer Tom Angleberger, author of the New York Times best-selling series ‘Origami Yoda’, launches a week of John Christopher posts, including book reviews and an interview with the man himself.
Long-established children’s book magazine, ‘Books for Keeps’, interviews Sam Youd: ‘I think the successful children’s books are those which appeal to something at a deeper level which the child doesn’t really quite work out. Now in “The White Mountains”, the whole thing is that at puberty people are brainwashed. The whole future of mankind rests in the hands of the young, the age group for which I’m writing. I think that kids at that age – around 12 or 13 – probably do look at the adults around them resentfully and think of them as hidebound and prejudiced. It’s important for children to have stories which put them in the driving seat.’
In 1971, two years after its publication, John Christopher published an article in the children’s magazine ‘Puffin Post’ to explain his reasons for writing the classic sci-fi adventure story of boys on the moon.
In 1970, the film ‘No Blade of Grass’ (US title of ‘The Death of Grass’) was released under the strapline, ‘No room to run – no place to hide – no blade of grass’. Years later, when it was broadcast as a late night movie, the author sat down to watch it in a comfy chair, a glass of whisky to hand. He lasted until the first advert break and then, sensibly, retired to bed.
After the outbreak of World War II, Sam Youd organized chains of fans to each of which he would circulate a page or more of news; each fan would make additions and pass the bundle on to the next guy …
The December 1940 edition of ‘The Futurian’ – ‘incorporating Pseud-Futurian and Science Fantasy Review’s War Digest’ – introduces the 19-year-old Christopher Samuel Youd, described as ‘quite a promising writer, but searching frantically for an adequate philosophy of life, which he hasn’t found yet’.
A compilation of the sayings of John Christopher on Goodreads.