Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Not With a Bang...a Review of Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Isherwood Williams is "Ish" to himself and to most who know him.  Ish, a graduate student in geography, out in the wilderness of northern California doing fieldwork, is bitten by a rattlesnake on the opening page of Earth Abides.  As he's fighting fever and delirium alone in his cabin, an even larger battle is being waged in the greater world, a battle of which Ish is unaware and which will be lost before he even regains consciousness.  A deadly and extraordinarily fast-acting virus, of unknown origin but transported to the far corners of the world by air travelers, is killing off humanity, nearly to the point of extinction.  When Ish emerges from his fever days later and descends the mountain, he discovers that the world as he knew it is gone forever.

His reaction, perhaps as a defense mechanism, is detached and unemotional; a reaction of detachment, Ish tells himself, is right and fitting for the scholar and philosopher that he is.  He decides to travel across the country taking stock, looking for other survivors, and making note of how the earth is reacting.  His journey, always one of observation and study, takes him all the way from the Bay Area of San Francisco to New York and back again, to the house in which he grew up.  Along the way, scattered amidst the vast stretches of an America mostly devoid of people, he will meet occasional survivors, all in a state of shock at being alone in such a big world, but none any more interested in him than he is in them.

Disinterested.  Apathetic.  Passive.  These words describe the attitude of Ish and the rest of humanity's survivors for most of the book.  They are content merely to live off the leavings of the civilization that came before rather than trying to rebuild or create a new one.  It is a frustrating attitude for Ish--particularly when he begins to see it in himself, over and over--but is even more frustrating for the reader.  Dig a well! you scream to yourself, long before Ish even idly turns over the idea (before lazily discarding it).  Plant a crop!  Tend the herds of cattle that have gone feral and roam the countryside!  Teach the children to read and write!  Build a government!

But it is not until the last pages of Earth Abides that we see a new society arise, and then it is not so much from the ashes of the civilization that ended so abruptly and so finally, but organically, as if from the earth itself.  Perhaps George R. Stewart saw a complacence in people of the post-war world of 1949 in which he wrote this book.  Perhaps he felt that the only way to build a new civilization would be to see the old one utterly forgotten except in myth and legend.  Whatever his reason, Earth Abides is maddening and inspiring in equal measure, and well worth more than one read.

And for some very different looks at what a post-apocalyptic society might look like, try A Canticle For Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, both published in 1959, ten years after Earth Abides came out.  Canticle, set in the far future, restarts civilization at a medieval level, in which  the Catholic church is the keeper of the spark of knowledge.  Alas, Babylon, on the other hand, is a hyper-realistic study of a small community busily rebuilding itself in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war.

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