Monday, August 7, 2017

George R. Stewart: Earth Abides

George R. Stewart
Earth Abides

This is the second of my plague posts, the first being on Feb. 16, 2017. ( which included a brief discussion of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" and Jack London's novella, "The Scarlet Plague.

One intriguing overlap is that Jack London's "The Scarlet Plague" and Stewart's Earth Abides were set in the San Francisco area and that the POV characters in both stories had been professors at a local university.   It may simply be coincidence since Stewart taught at the University of California at Berkeley and London was born in San Francisco and died in northern California, as did Stewart. 

Earth Abides is one of the best post-holocaust novels I've ever read. It's a quiet novel which focuses on the effects on those who survived a war in which over 99% of the human race died. The title comes from Ecclesiastes:

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities: all is vanity.
 What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?
 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh;
 but the earth abideth for ever. "

Ish comes across in the first chapter as the quiet, reflective type who seems to prefer being an observer than a participant (an observation he makes himself at one point).. I wonder how much of this detachment is him and how much is shock at seeing his world ended.

The story has two narrative structures.  The first is the one in regular print, and that's mostly the story of Ish and his doings--his attempt to deal with the drastic change in the status of the human race.  During the past century or so, humans had become the dominant species on the planet, and its favored animals and plants were slowly pushing the unfavored ones to the sidelines.  Now, Ish has to change his behavior to reflect that of humanity's new status, a vastly reduced position, both in dominance and in numbers.   Technology, his greatest asset, is slowly disintegrating and would soon be useless.  The safety net that technology and the civilization based on it was gone.  He finally realized it to some extent when his fears returned shortly after starting out.  Before the catastrophe, if his car had broken down for any reason, he could just wait for a passing motorist, even on remote roads, or perhaps a state highway patrol officer.  Now, he was on his own.  Nobody would come to rescue him.

The second narrative is the one in italics.  It is there for a very good reason.  Ish is only human and has only a limited perspective, centered mostly on himself and his concerns.  He has little if any idea of what goes on around him, especially if it's out of sight.  The title of the novel is not Ish Abides, or Humanity Abides., but Earth Abides.  The focus of the novel is, therefore, on the effects on Earth and the plants and animals that share the planet with humans.  Humans are once again back on the same level as other creatures:  it must take the Earth as it is and learn how to survive with what is provided by Earth.   He can no longer reshape the Earth to fit in with his desires and presumed needs. 

For example, we take fences for granted.  They are one of humanity's means of  control of the environment.  Fences are humanity's way of saying these animals must stay here and not go somewhere else, while other animals occupy other places specified by humans.  Now, the fences are breaking down, and those animals are now free to go as their natures dictate, regardless of  human plans. 

The novel is an account of the way the group survived several crises, grew, and changed over the years.  There are no bloodthirsty mutants or no spectacular scientific advances, nor do they set up an Edenic society, in which all are wise, reasonable, and loving.  Stewart has given us humans who lose almost everything they had taken for granted and that includes friends and relatives.  Of the survivors, all have lost everybody they knew, the one exception in Ish's group being a young mother and her infant child. They are the only two with a connection that survived the Plague. 

What we see in the novel is the gradual acceptance of their situation and an attempt to survive. It is a low key novel with expected challenges: the search for food, water, shelter, and companionship.  The most significant change over the years is the passing of the first generation and the gradual assumption of control by the next generation, those that had no experience or knowledge of what life had been before the Plague.

Ish attempted to teach the new generation, but they were not interested in sitting around a classroom and being lectured on things which seemed to have little relevance to life now.  Perhaps Ish's greatest contribution to their physical survival was the introduction of the bow and arrow.  Ammunition supplies were dwindling and they lacked the knowledge and technology to make more or to repair or manufacture gun or ammunition.

Stewart has provided the reader with what I can only call a very human  and a very ironic and a very satisfying ending, though it is not the ending of Ish's group.  Those who have read the book will recognize the irony of the following statement:  a foreshadowing of the slow development of a Myth. Early in the book, the question of his relationship to the group arises.  He provides them with stability, and he alone, in the early days at first, is able to function.  They look up to him, for his detachment to some extent sets him apart from the others.  But, at one point he thinks to himself:  "'No,' he thought.  "Whatever happens, at least I shall never believe that I a god.  No, I shall never be a god!'"

I wonder how future generations will view Ish. 

At the beginning of this post, I wrote that this was one of the best post-holocaust novels I had ever read.  I would like to modify that by saying it is one of the best SF novels I had ever read.


  1. i had a similar reaction when i read it; Stewart was a fairly prolific writer, but mostly on the non-fiction side... his "Dictionary of American Place-names" is a good example, although he had eclectic productions, including a history of the Donner party...
    Fred, tx for your excellent review; it's time i reread this book...

    1. Mudpuddle--thanks for stopping by and for your kind comment. I reread Earth Abides often as a great antidote to much of today's SF which is filled with action, at the expense of character and story.

  2. Somehow I have never read this book.I am not sure why not. This is the kind of story that has intrigued me my entire life. I sounds literate and, despite the fact that it was written in the 1940s, creative.

    I had planned to read Station 11 soon. I may give this a read first.

    1. Brian--Yes, it is an exception to many of the post-holocaust novels being written at the time. It isn't an action-oriented novel with lots of conflict and the survivors finally winning out and developing a new Eden, free of the old corrupt civilization.

  3. Fred, thanks for baiting the hook so well with your posting; I've not read but must read EA. What do you think is the impulse behind readers' fascination with dystopian fiction? I get quite depressed by such offerings and must be in the right frame of mind for subjecting myself to the despair of dystopia.

    1. R.T.--Possibly frustration with the way they see things are going. The situation is bad and so complicated that the only solution is to start over again with a clean slate.

      I'm interested in what you think of it.

  4. I asked the author of EARTH AFTER MAN if he knew EA, & he said yes, had read it. "How come you never referenced it?" Embarrassed silence; for he took much from it.

    1. Gregory,

      Was a film based on that book? I never read the book, but I did see a film with the same theme.

      I can see the similarities between the film and EA.

  5. I've never been a big fan of dystopian or post apocalyptic fiction, Fred, so I may not read this - but I am intrigued by your post. Especially since I've never heard of this author. Lately I have been reading or planning to read a bit of science fiction, so I'm adding this title to that list. But I'm promising nothing - I'm not sure I'm ready to read anything but things that make me happy in some way for the time being. The real world is just too ugly right now.

    1. Yvette--I see it as a gentle, quiet post-holocaust work. Overall, I would call it real and optimistic.