plague novels: a scent of new-mown hay

While Andromeda Strain is the most bloodless science fiction – the microorganism is a solid hexagonal crystal, no messy fluids here – A Scent of New Mown Hay (John Blackburn, 1959) is a work of horror. Every other chapter ends with people people running screaming, or averting their eyes from the plague-stricken bodies, which are never fully described. As in John Wyndham, cosy domestic scenes and orderly meetings leaven the grisliness.

The scientific premise is reasonable: a fast-spreading fungus that forms a symbiosis with humans, arising from madura mushrooms. There is an actual condition of this type called “Madura foot” that produces bulbous execrescences and was, before medical advances controlled by amputation. The fictional strain has been juiced with radiation to spread more aggressively, merging inevitably with women’s bodies in particular (!) to form an elephantiasic lumpy mass, just jointed and sentient enough to show it began as human, otherwise as layered and vegetal as something you’d find in the back of the fridge.

Similar to Wyndham’s books, the protagonist is a decent, uxorious young scientist testing his skills against the clock, and unlike in Crichton’s, his wife is an important player as well. She earns her team status by remembering a fact nobody could have forgotten, and cements it with independent detective work.

As a child I found the book acute and frightening because the spores, originating in Russia, spread on the wind – akin to the nuclear bombs and fallout described in civil defense manuals from the local Air Force base. But the novel’s solution depends not on science, diplomacy or defense but on small-group psychology: on psyching out the scientist who doctored and released the spores. And that scientist had local help; in the end, horror also lives in the presence of moles and traitors at home.

CW: classism, homophobia, ageism and reverse ageism, ableism, racist talk, WW II never ended.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
This entry was posted in books, books bookhoard, review, sf. Bookmark the permalink.