Monday, September 23, 2019

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

One of the great things about book blogs is that you are introduced to some interesting novels that you otherwise would never have known about.
Thank you Lark for introducing me to Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
published 1949 and please check out Lark's excellent book blog at

I found Earth Abides to be a thought provoking read, a post apocalyptic classic in which a pandemic kills off most of the earth's human population.  This virus does not affect the rest of the planet's ecosystem and so a central theme of Earth Abides is what happens to the animals, plants, trees, forests, and all that man has built, when humans are not here in sufficient numbers to keep things in check?  What happens to civilization?

And so in part one of Earth Abides we meet Isherwood (Ish) Williams, a young grad student who is travelling through the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Disaster strikes when Ish is bitten by a rattlesnake but he miraculously recovers. However, when Ish gets back to town he grows increasingly uneasy.  Why no other cars on the road and why no people?  Ish will discover that during the weeks he spent alone in the mountains a deadly plague came out of nowhere rapidly killing most of human life.  Possibly Ish was spared because the snake bite venom destroyed the virus within him but over 95% of the rest of humanity was not so lucky.

Ish tries various methods to cope with this new world.  He goes in search of other survivors but the people he encounters are either emotional wrecks or dangerous.  Ish then wonders if maybe he could live out his days in isolation.  But panic sets in when the electricity goes off and it's only when Ish meets Emma, the woman who will become his wife, that he begins to see a future:

"And now he would not be the lonely spectator, at least, not merely that.  He could read.  He was equipped with the background of much knowledge already.  He would extend that into technics and psychology, into political science, if that were needed.  There must be others that he could find also to join with them - good people who would help in the new world.  He would start looking for people again.  He would look craftily trying to keep away from all those who had suffered too much from the shock, whose minds and bodies were not what one wanted to build up the new society". 

Ish and Emma do find other survivors and part two and three of Earth Abides takes us through the next twenty-three years and beyond as this little group, their children and grandchildren build a community.  There is tension in that Ish is interested in the human race having a future and that involves teaching the children to read, teaching them about history, math and trying to inspire everyone to begin growing more food, developing an irrigation system, trying to find alternatives for gunpowder and matches which are necessities in this new world but will eventually become useless and dry up and then what? Ish is right of course and yet I felt the other group members, content to live in the present, had a point as well because civilization as it once was is gone and not coming back.  Ish too notices this when he is observing the children:

"The children, he came to realize, were not only children, but they were also unsophisticated and inexperienced as children in the Old Times had rarely been. None of them had ever seen more than a few dozen people.  Though their lives, he believed, had been happy, they had been happy with the simplicity of a few satisfying experiences, repeated again and again. They had not suffered the continual shock of change which had so affected children in the old days, both for good and for bad, making them nervous on the one hand, and yet alert on the other".

I was very impressed by Earth Abides.  It's well written, philosophical and really caused me to think.  I finished the novel curious about George R. Stewart the author as well.  He was a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley.  He wrote a number of books on diverse topics.  His most well known novels are Ordeal by Hunger about the tragic Donner Party expedition, Storm about a hurricane named Maria and here is an interesting fact.  It was Storm that caused the National Weather Service to begin giving hurricanes personal names.  Stewart's great novel is Earth Abides and though it is not environmentalist literature exactly one is reminded of the fragility of civilization and today may be even more timely than when it was published seventy years ago.  The classics have a way of staying relevant.