Apocalypse Then: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Reviewed by Marian Powell
18 October 2004
As for man, there is little reason to think that he can in the long run escape the fate of other creatures.
The quote above sounds like it was written today. Yet, it's not from a doomsday article in a current magazine. That quote is from a novel published in 1949.
Can a novel over a half a century old speak to current concerns? The answer is yes. Earth Abides is probably more relevant now than when it was written. In 1949, a story about a new disease that wipes out the human race would have been one more science fiction story. Now, with AIDS progressing around the world and a dozen other newly discovered diseases such as Ebola lurking, ready to erupt, the idea is no longer just science fiction but a current concern. Another comment from the opening chapter is that just because something has never happened does not mean it cannot happen. In other words, just because the human race has never been wiped out by a plague, doesn't mean it couldn't happen tomorrow.
This may sound like the novel is a polemic or a tract. It is not. It is a good, solid end-of-the-world yarn.
Ish, a young graduate student, spends several weeks in the mountains of California, doing research for his thesis. He has deliberately cut all communication with the outside world, not even listening to the radio. He wants to focus on his work and he is a man who enjoys being alone.
The scene when he drives out of the mountains to return to San Francisco is still creepily effective. Nothing is wrong except no other car is moving on the highway and the radio picks up nothing but static. At first he barely notices, then he notices but isn't concerned, then he is very worried. Finally, he sees a body, just lying by the side of the road. He finds the last-ever issue of the local newspaper, and learns that while he was in the mountains, humanity has died of a plague that exploded around the world without warning.
From then on, Earth Abides becomes brilliantly original and thought provoking. We've all read-end-of-the-world stories, so we think we know what will happen next. Ish will meet a young and gorgeous woman and they will become Adam and Eve. Alternately, Ish will find a small group of survivors being threatened by a gang of anarchists on motorcycles, or perhaps zombies or mutants, whomhe will save so that together they can rebuild civilization.
Instead of those familiar scenarios, when Ish goes searching for survivors, he runs into a very simple problem: he doesn't much like the people he finds. Either they are stunned, dazed, and unable to cope, or they are simply people he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life with.
I have never read another novel that took this realistic an approach. If you suddenly found yourself with only a few dozen people, what are the chances they would be people you would want to settle down with? What are the chances you would find someone you would want to be close to? Even though this is realistic, it's also true that Ish is rather arrogant and too demanding. A reasonable person would "make do," but Ish is young, and a little immature. He wants to find a man who can be a friend and partner in rebuilding; and he wants to find a beautiful girl for the usual reasons a young man wants to find a beautiful girl—and he basically wants them to be perfect.
He searches all the way to New York, doesn't find what he wants, and rather sulkily goes back to San Francisco. It's only then, after he gives up on the human race, that he sees the light. Or rather, he sees a light, in a house in the distance, and so meets a survivor he likes and admires, Em. She is older than he is, and not particularly beautiful, but is wise, calm, and sensible. With her he finds the companionship he craved. Ish finally matures, realizing he has found both a mate and a friend in the same person.
Most importantly, Em provides common sense and courage as they begin to face the problems of the future. In every crisis, while Ish hesitates and thinks about all the things that could go wrong, it is Em who consistently chooses life over giving up.
The remainder of the novel deals with the one basic question of the future. Survival is not an immediate problem since there is plenty of food to scavenge. They eventually meet five other adults and Ish thinks he now has the material out of which to create a new civilization. The rest of the story is about his efforts and what becomes of them. I should add that I don't always agree with the author's conclusions.
It is here that the novel most stands out. These stories usually end with the little group of survivors heroically forging a new civilization. Earth Abides carries the group into the future and shows the kinds of problems they have to face.
For example, I cannot think of another story that deals so realistically with the problem of agriculture. Usually, it is simply assumed that people will plant crops and they will grow. Ish plunges wholeheartedly into farming and the results are disastrous. If it weren't for stockpiles of canned food, they would starve. None of the seven adults has any experience as a farmer—out of a random group of seven people, what are the chances of finding even one with useful skills? Yet, what are their chances of survival if this group does not learn to farm? I won't tell you the answer that the novel provides, but it's both realistic and surprising.
I first read Earth Abides decades ago. (Though not when it was first published—I wasn't reading yet!) I have reread it several times since. Each time, I find myself agreeing at some points with George R. Stewart, the author, and wanting to argue with him at others. There are times when I really want to give Ish a good shake and shout at him, "You arrogant fool!"
When a novel makes you want to quarrel with the author and maybe give the main character a good slap, and yet makes you want to read it over and over again, you know it's a good read.
Earth Abides is a book that works on many levels, from the simple scare evoked by a plague wiping out over 99% of the people on earth, to the serious examination of what makes a civilization work, and how you would go about creating one out of ruins. Like a fine wine, Earth Abides is aging well. Happily, it is still in print.