Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book Review: 'Earth Abides' by George Stewart

Earth Abides (1949)
George Stewart (1895-1980)

345 pages

Men go and come, but earth abides.
- Ecclesiastes, 1.4

With this epigraph, George Stewart opens his novel of post-apocalyptic America.   Published in 1949 and set in the immediate future, the novel tells the story of a young biologist, Isherwood "Ish" Williams, who comes down out of the California mountains after a two week research trip and discovers that most of the population has been wiped out by a deadly plague. Naturally a bit of a loner, with a tendency to hang back and observe the passing scene, he shakes off his initial shock by deciding to travel across country and, falling back on his experience as a researcher, to observe and understand the new reality.   Finding the country nearly empty of people, and encountering no one with whom he is interested in joining up, he eventually returns to his family home in Oakland.

Over the months that follow a small handful of survivors gather around him and establish a tiny community in the empty remains of what was once a metropolitan area with several hundred thousand inhabitants. This tiny group has all around them the almost limitless left-overs of what they come to call the "old world"; this includes both the useful, such as canned foods and tools, and the apparently useless, such as coins and jewelry. But on the other hand, with just a few random people left, most technical experience and knowledge has been lost to the plague. Most of the survivors, in shock over all they have lost and in being suddenly deeply alone in a nearly empty world, focus only on their daily existence.

At its heart the novel represents Stewart's vision of how this tiny group of strangers might come together and make a new life out of the ruins of all they have lost. And of how someone such as his main character Ish, trained in the sciences and the importance of knowledge, might fare in a community of a few random souls who have varying abilities, capabilities and motivations. Ish often finds his powerful desire to prevent mankind from losing its centuries of accumulated scientific and philosophical progress frustrated by the lack of the larger social structures that in the pre-plague world had naturally ensured the transfer of knowledge to future generations, and thereby provided the basis for further development. The easy access the survivors have to so much of the output of the old world, and the lack of visible benefit they perceive in developing new skills, means there is little motivation to learn. Stewart follows this set of conditions to its not surprising conclusion as the generations of the community become farther separated from the old world knowledge.

The novel is nearly completely focused on Ish; the transition to the new world, and the progress and struggles of the group that gathers around him are presented through his eyes. His fierce determination to prevent the loss of knowledge --- in essence to try and continue civilization as if the plague had just been a blip in the road --- becomes for him a destiny and a burden. Sometimes succeeding, more often failing, his experiences gradually force him to recognize his limitations and learn himself the art of what is possible. Through Ish, Stewart drives home how completely so much of what is today taken for granted can be lost. But he also provides a sketch of how prideful obstinacy in the face of an overwhelming challenge can be softened over time into a more resigned, but ultimately also more effective, outlook.

This 1949 novel shares several connections with later author's visions of post-apocalyptic worlds. One example involves a minor sub-plot in the book that revolves around a black 'family' of survivors Ish finds in a small, otherwise empty farming community in Arkansas; he considers that they "had solved the problem [of survival] better than he," because, instead of scavenging, they were raising most of the food they needed. But his encounter with them, concluded in such a positive note, includes a passage that ties the book to 1949, in that Ish thinks to himself, "I might be a king in a little way, if I remained. They would not like it, but from long habit they would, I think, accept the situation...." This passage differs starkly from a novel that came just ten years later, in 1959, Alas, Babylon, in which a black family plays a much more integral, though still supporting and not equal, role in the small community of survivors after a nuclear war. And, another twenty years later in Steven King's, The Stand, race plays no part in the story.

The Stand compares in another way to Earth Abides in that an infection, this time clearly man-made, quickly decimates much of the world's population. Again the survivors have the left-overs of the old world with which to survive, and are so widely separated that the small groups they do initially gather in can maintain only minimal technical capability. But, instead of remaining separated into small, isolated communities, the survivors gradually coalesce (pulled together by forces of good and evil) into two, competing cities. The larger concentration of survivors that results, along with the inevitable confrontation between the two cities, provides the technical ability and motivation to resurrect the most critical aspects of the old world technology, such as electricity and water, in relatively short order.

Finally, in short asides sprinkled through the story, Stewart steps outside the narrative and describes what he imagines happening to the physical world mankind had constructed, as well as to the world of plants and animals, now that man is essentially gone from the picture. These fascinating pieces present a foreshadow of the recent, non-fiction book The World Without Us.

Other reviews / information:
A review in January Magazine

Book covers for different editions --- interesting commentary on the book and the period when a particular edition was published.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

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