Greener Than You Think by Moore, Ward, 1947

Greener Than You Think by Moore, Ward

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I guess I'm a little jaded at this point. I consider myself pretty well read, and I take some pride in the fact that I can usually figure out how a book is going to end well before I get to the last page. I have been surprised a few times in the last year, but not too many. I also am proud that I can generally intuit the general tone for any review I am going to write, usually before I have reached the end of the first act of a particular book. I am almost never wrong in that. But I used the word "almost," because I have been fooled once this year. With this book, Greener than you Think, by Ward Moore, my very favorite unknown genre author. It really took me 168 pages to realize that I was going to love this book, and exactly 224, of 358, before I realized that I was reading an absolute genre classic.

Greener than you Think is a catasrophe story. Its a true end of civilization tale, but its quite different because it moves slow, and literally the end of the world creeps upon us while we have it in plain sight. In terms of plot this book is about a scientist who invents a chemical that causes grasses to undergo tremendous growth and endows them with the ability to propigate on virtually any substrate. The scientist's hope is that she will end world hunger, so she hires a traveling salesman to market her invention for her. Francis, the scientist, gives to Weener, the salesman, the chemical before it has been adequately tested. Instead of showing it to farmers who grow grain crops he takes it to a neighborhood in Hollywood and sells one dose to a homeowner whose yard is spotted only with small patches of Cynodon Dactylon, or Bermuda Grass, a.k.a., here in California, Devil Grass. As a result of the fast growth characteristics of the grass, compounded by a concentrated misapplication of the formula, the affected Devil Grass begins to grow uncontrollably. At first it completely defied all efforts to take it down with mowers, scythes and chemicals, and in short time had grown out of the home owner's yard. From there it kept growing and growing and growing, all the time resisting man's efforts to stopit , or even slow it down. The grass destroyed everything it touched, and killed everyone who got lost in it. It grew so tall that mountain ranges disappeared from sight. The Americans ultimately tried every trick in the book and every weapon in the arsenal to stop the grass, but nothing worked. It expanded its range by miles per day once it really got going, and slowly took the entire country, then continent, then world, pushing billions of refugees before its green mass and causing all the expected social, criminal and resource problems that one would expect.

The grass itself is what I view as a pretty typical pulp era SF monster, with some important distinctions. It seemed to figure out how to jump across oceans from the new world to the old. Its was obviously non-sentient, and most of the time it behaved like a plant should. But at other times it was somewhat animal-like and seemed to think. It could reach for new space, and reacted to assaults upon its corpus by stopping, examining and then leveling a counter attack. As the grass surviveed attacks by salt, and then flamethrowers, chemicals, tanks, carpet bombings and ultimately atomic weapons it never seemed to stop and laugh at us, but it did keep coming, and that itself is something that speaks to the deep psychological fear in our collective id. And when ultimately the grass grew down to the the hastily widened Panama Canal Zone across the now submerged nations of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras, it peered across the rift and seemed to contemplate its next move. Here is a quote to show what I mean. In this part of the book the Americans have laid down a barrier of salt 1/2 mile wide in an arc from Long Beach in Los Angeles all the way up to the Central Coast of California, and eastward to San Bernardino in the middle of the state. This is pretty much the last attempt before atomic bombs were used.

But the creeping of the runners over the first few feet of salt dwindled to a stop. This caused experienced observers like myself no elation; we had seen it happen many times before at the encountering of any novel obstacle, and its only effect had been to make the weed change its tactics in order to overcome the obstruction, as it did now. A second rank moved forward on top of the halted first, a third upon the second and so on until a living wall frowned down upon the salt, throwing its shadow across it for hundreds of ominous yards. It towered erect and then, repeating the tactic invariable successful, it toppled forward to create a bridgehead from which to launch new assaults.

I also really enjoyed the characters in this novel, particularly Weener, the salesman. The "development" that Moore puts him through is the primary vehicle for satire, which this book is rich with. Weener at first, and unfortunately also in the end, was a shameless opportunist with average skills and abilities who incessantly talked himself up in his own mind, telling himself that he is the best at whatever it was he was trying to accomplish. He was very self absorbed, and quite buffoonish in his self-promotion. As a result of a lifetime of self delusion he really had become blind to everything that was going on around him. As the book progressed over its roughly twenty-two year time frame Weener built his company into the most important company in the world, and became the single most important and richest businessman on the planet. Through care, luck and abominable insider knowledge Weener managed in the end to make Concentrated Pemmicin into the only company in the world, and pretty much owned everything there was left to own. Weener was in a unique position to help do something about the advancing wave of grass, but instead spent far too much time worrying about his economic position in the world, and instead "helped" by giving donations of ₤10,000 to the poor every few months. Moore's point with this character is made crystal clear in the dedication, where he says:

Neither the vegetation nor people in this book are entirely fictitious. But, reader, no person pictured here is you. With one exception. You, Sir, Miss, or Madam - whatever your country or station - are Albert Weener. As I am Albert Weener.

In other words, we all dither while Rome burns, we care only about what we can see right in front of us, and we dismiss bad news with the hope that someone else will do something about it.

Weener's short time employer, a hyper-intelligent newspaper publisher named W.R. Le ffaçasè (l' fah-uh-say) is also very important to the satirical message, and an extremely well drawn character, as is Josephine Spencer Francis, the originator of the formula. Le ffaçasè is not so much the voice of reason in this story, but instead he is the voice of anger. Once the grass started to threaten all of California Le ffaçasè hired Weener to write a column for his newspaper. He was highly aggressive and insulting towards Weener in a way to cast a bright light on Weener's everyman faults so that all save Weener could see them. Le ffaçasè's character was used by Moore to bring his main theme to the forefront, but appears few enough times in the novel that he definately does not sound like he is up on a soap-box. Francis represented pure science (she is virginal in fact, virgins intacto) and therefore not necessarily the salvation of our way of life, but at least the hope of salvation (we have already learned not to trust science, so I think that the only hope she offered was palliative). After inventing the substance that was put on the grass, she dedicated herself to finding a way to stop it. The language Francis used when she addressed Weener was as full of anger as Le ffaçasè's language, and for the same reason, but Francis dithered in the end exactly the same way that Weener did, and turned out to be just as blind as he to the real problems, though in a slightly different, more concerned way. Only Le ffaçasè and a few other ancillary characters in the end showed that they knew what was important, and embraced their humanity by journeying to the billions of refugees to aid them in body and soul.

This book is pretty pure satire. It is very slightly Stapledonian, with minor and only occasionally used elements of Swift, that are all wrapped up by a pretty novel SF genre monster and finally bowed with post WWII fears. I really know of nothing from its own era to compare it too. If you like Max Brooks you will probably like this, as it is intelligent, very well written, truly global in the scope of its calamity, and moves sequentially and logically to its conclusion, though it achieves a darker tone with a less malevolent monster. Moore is incredibly patient in the telling of this tale, and as a result he has adequate time to describe society's reaction and the effect of massive amounts of refugees first in the USA and then the rest of the world, as the world loses critical infrastructure, arable lands and cities great and small. This book is a very early post WWII genre novel, and may have been the first major novel after that conflict. Moore uses quite a few of the more prominent motifs used by that time period's intelligentsia, such as the futility of hope in atomic bombs, Germanic and French protagonists who are at odds (Weener and Le ffaçasè, both of whom are US citizens, but whose very names evoke those cultures), with the United States caught in the middle, British stoicism in the face of an unstoppable force, and ultimately the destruction of the world through science run amok. For a 1947 novel, Moore's style is quite advanced, and he is certainly never hackish. Keep in mind though that this is a pulp-era novel with limited character evolution. However, that being said it absolutely has a societal focus with global effects, and the lack of character development is critical to the satire. This book would just not be the same if Weener's character had wisened up, and in that respect, this book is a success. Moore does have better genre tales out there, particularly Bring the Jubilee, possibly the best genre book ever written (and reviewed elsewhere on my website), and two short stories called Lot & Lot's Daughter, which can also be found here at OBR. In those stories a family is driven out of Los Angeles after a total nuclear war. On the way from the city the father decides to abandon his wife and son and set up an end-of-the-world survival camp in the foothills with his young daughter whom he takes as a wife. This one is not as strong as those two other stories, but it is up pretty high.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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