Earth Abides by Stewart, George, 1949

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Earth Abides is one of the slower disaster novels out there, but it is a very good read and definately keeps you turning the pages. It was published in 1949, the same year as 1984, and while it does not have anywhere near as much to say about our society as that other book does, its entertainment value is much higher. In the end, it probably has things to say about human motivations and entropy, but even if it does, its hidden pretty well in a good plot and detailed prose. Three stars out of five.

Earth Abides is a plague novel. Within the first couple of pages a mutant virus sweeps through the world's population killing just about everyone. Insherwood Williams, called "Ish," is a PhD candidate in geology who is in the backwoods in Northern California collecting data for his dissertation. While in the woods he is struck by a rattlesnake. He manages to bleed the poison in time, but he is simultaneously struck with the virus. Perhaps due to the presence of the venom, Ish survives the virus and lives. After a few days in his cot and a near-death-experience or two, he shambles down to the nearest town, only to get his first taste of an emptied nation. Once Ish figures out what has happened, he sets off on a cross country trip to see if anyone else is alive, other than the few kooks hes found in various San Francisco Bay Area cities. This part of the book is very interesting, as it was written before just about any of the Eisenhower highway system was even started. This highway system is one of the modern marvels our American society has created, and its hard for most Americans to imagine life without it. Ish does meet a few others, but not very many. Stewart's main idea in this story really seems to be that even if you take away almost all of the people and institutions, culture still winds along at the same speed, and even if the stimuli that affect us the most have completely changed, societal change still comes along at the same pace as before. This was a pretty sharp departure from many other catastrophe books, save perhaps for those of John Wyndham. Most others before and since depict a rapid decline in civilization and a swift return to barbarism. Stewart's main character throughout the entire book is Ish, and he does a fair job showing the change through Ish's eyes. As Ish makes his way across the empty country he starts to shed, little by little, the morals and standards that a civilized city man held himself to in the 1950's. That is not to say that Ish at any time either headed towards or became a barbarian; he actually reverted to a clearly colonial way of thinking. But Ish shocks even himself with the things that he is now capable of, including cold-blooded murder, even if it is done to "protect" his family and prevent future attacks.

There are some veiled biblical references in this book too, but none of them really say anything about where society is headed. Religion actually drops off the face of the earth (save for one community in Los Angeles that appears to become animistic), but the imagery Stewart does use stands out a bit. All of it rather vaguely reflects imagery from the Book of Genesis and other early books of the Christian Bible, including a plague wiping out humanity, Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden which provides for everything and in which nobody becomes sick, fruit as a thing that is denied to the survivors, and snakes. The smiting of a "brother" also figures into the story, after which a second plague is visited upon the survivors like punishment from God. But some of the best imagery in the book has to do with the gradual weathering and subsidence of the things humanity left behind. The story is 42 years in the telling, and what has not burned in Northern California's frequent brush fires has been worn to splinters by rain and other elements. Even the Oakland Bay Bridge is on its last legs by the final few pages of the story, and San Francisco was long since burned to the ground. Roads were still there, but most of them were under several inches of top soil and looked like long straight shrubbery beds. I suppose the theme that binds the chapters together in this book is the gradual simplification of society after a great calamity, despite the efforts of a few to preserve a particular way of life, or at the very least, some "critical" knowledge. Ish set himself up as the leader of a group near Berkley, and started cranking out the kids with a few others that appealed to him as friends. As the kids age, he trieed in vain to teach them things such as reading, writing, mathematics and others, but eventually gave up and showed them how to make bows and arrows and how to make fire without matches. After all, after 42 years not much of our stuff is left around for scavenging. Before his death the grand children and great grand children of Ish became as Native Americans, and in the end, they made a deity of Ish and the Americans, whom they assumed made the world, the hills and the water around them.

As this book was published in 1949, it is quite dated by our standards. For example, Ish makes liberal use of DDT to keep bugs down in his house. Venereal diseases are referred to in mixed company as "Cupid's Diseases." People of African descent are also referred to regularly as "negros," which in the part of the country I grew up in was polite in those days, but not any longer. If you can get past all of this without chuckling too much, you're in for an entertaining story. One other aspect of the writing style that I really enjoyed is every few pages Stewart slipped into an omniscient voice and told the ultimate fate of whatever Ish was thinking about in the previous passage. For example, after Ish encountered cattle, hens, sheep, corn, wheat, dogs, cats, rats and other things on his cross-country trip, Stewart took a few moments before moving on to describe how that species or object survived or went extinct and why.

This book has pretty much been in print since its original date of publishing. It is absolutely a masterpiece, and is a very good example of how SF was morphing from the pulp adventure and idea stories of the pre-war era to the interpersonal stories that commented on society and culture that would really pick up in the New Wave of the late 50's and 60's. It is also a very very good example of modern SF writing that deals with a mature subject manner in a mature and believable way. Consider giving this one a try for sure if you liked The Stand, as you will for sure find yourself making comparisons that bring to memory portions of that book.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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