BOOK: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)

Ish Williams is out camping in the woods when he gets bitten by a rattlesnake.  Far away from civilization with no access to a phone (this novel is set in the 1950s, back when phones were made out of dinosaurs), he has no choice but to ride it out and see if it kills him.  He manages to make his way to a nearby cabin, crawls into bed, and waits to die.  As the venom works its way through his body, his fever skyrockets, and he spends several days in and out of consciousness.  At one point, two other men show up at the cabin’s door, take one look at him, and flee, panicked.  It’s not until Ish recovers and makes his way back to town that he realizes why:  some horrible epidemic has infected, and then killed, pretty much the entire world.  Town is empty.  There’s nobody left alive.

Ish’s first reaction is to head for his house in Berkeley, where he spends a few weeks waiting around just in case any of his friends or family show up.  But it soon becomes clear nobody will be coming, and, for lack of anything better to do, Ish decides to gas up his car and drive as far as he can get to see what he can see.

As he travels, he comes across other survivors here and there — a man camped out in a liquor store gleefully drinking himself to death, a teenage girl who seems terrified of him, and a smattering of others.  But nobody seems to be coping all that well and Ish begins to despair for the future of mankind.  Until he meets Emma, a woman about his age who makes him laugh, seems clever, and eventually becomes his wife (of sorts — there aren’t any judges or ministers left, either).

By the close of the first section of the novel, Emma and Ish have established a small community with about eight other survivors roughly their age.  They all begin having as many children as they can, managing to keep water flowing (gravity, usually my nemesis, turns out to be quite useful in these situations), adapt to the lack of electricity, and sustain themselves on a diet of canned food and bottled beverages pilfered from local stores.  The second section jumps us ahead by about 20 years, and the third ahead again, and by the end of the book, we’ve lived through Ish’s entire life, the majority of it spent in this “brave new world.”

Though the novel has some slow parts (and also some things that don’t make much sense, like them eating canned food for decades without dying from botulism), I found it completely fascinating.  It’s the rare post-apocalyptic novel that doesn’t take a doomsday approach to the whole thing.  Instead, its approach is far more practical.  Rather like Ish himself .

Ish himself, incidentally, isn’t a terribly endearing character — he’s extremely judgmental and kind of an ass, frankly.  When I first started the novel, I almost put it back down fifty pages in because I simply didn’t LIKE him.  But his attitude ends up providing a unique and unapologetic observer’s account of what life is like when the world disappears.  It’s hard.  It’s frequently miserable.  But it carries on.  And Stewart clearly gave this subject a lot of thought:  there’s a crazy, crazy epidemic of ants for a while, for example, and then a horrific epidemic of rats — both of which end up quashing themselves, because that’s just how nature works when there’s too much of any one thing, right?  (Perhaps for people too.)

There are extremely complicated social questions that emerge as well, several of which I’m still thinking about, weeks later.  In the second part of the book, Ish’s two sons go out to explore (finding it increasingly difficult to drive anywhere not because there isn’t any gas, but because there’s been no road maintenance for decades — pot holes that eat Volkswagens for lunch, e.g.) and come back with a new friend Ish and the other “elders” immediately distrust.  For one thing, he’s boastful about having slept with dozens of women, which makes them worry he might be carrying STDs, which they’d pretty much eradicated in their community by never having been exposed to them.  And for another, he starts wooing the community’s mentally handicapped member, which makes Ish worry she might procreate, trashing the future-humans gene pool.  (See what I mean about Ish being an ass?  But, if you think about it, that’s actually sort of practical, despite the fact Ish had no way of knowing if her mental defects were truly genetic in cause or if they were simply related to the trauma she suffered when the world as she knew it ended).

The elders end up coming up with a plan — they’re going to have to kill the interloper to protect themselves.  But one of them objects to this, because in the old world, this would’ve been against the law.  This leads to a fascinating quandary — what is “law” when the world changes so dramatically?

That’s just one example of the numerous thoughtful issues raised by the characters and their situations in this story.  I could talk about this book for hours, really, and that’s probably why, as I discovered later, this book makes it onto just about every “best sci-fi novel ever written” list.  I don’t know how I’d never heard of it;  moms who love sci-fi totally rule.

Anybody who read Cormac McCarthy’s über-depressing novel The Road ought to think about picking this book up.  As my mother said, it’ll help “wash the ashes out of your mouth.”  And when you’re done, I’d love to talk to you about your experience. This is definitely a book I won’t be forgetting any time soon.  If only because of the rats.  Seriously, the RATS.  THINK ABOUT THE RATS!!  I never thought about the rats!  Good lord, the rats would’ve totally done me in.

Highly, highly recommended!

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4 Responses to “BOOK: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)”

  1. Jessie Says:

    Good to hear about this from you! I picked up a copy at a garage sale several years ago, but I never got around to reading it. I’m now putting it at the top of my pile. The thing about dystopias and post-apocalyptic works is that they always make ya think. I love that.

  2. RogerBW Says:

    I’d just like to say “Aha, gravity, my old nemesis. We meet again, but this time I have the upper hand”.

    After all, excuses to say that in day-to-day life are quite rare.

  3. Mine Says:

    Just so you know, canned food can theoretically last as long as the can does (as long as it’s not damaged). Case in point: A tin of meat taken by ill-fated polar explorer Sir John Franklin’s expedition was opened in 1926, 81 years after it was canned, and fed to two rats (see the irony?) with no ill effects.

    But thanks for the review – I came across this because some people have said Justin Cronin’s The Passage owes a lot to this book. Will have to see if I can pick both of them up and do a compare/contrast.

  4. megwood Says:

    Aha, good to know about canned food! Interesting that people think The Passage borrowed from this book. I read that myself and don’t really seem much in the way of parallels at all. Will have to think about that some. Thanks for posting, @Mine!

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