by George R. Stewart
Ballantine/Del Rey trade paperback edition (1949 copyright)
368 pages, 2006
After the Big One
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
Earth Abides is a contemporary reprint of one of the early modern novels. It tells a story of environmental catastrophe in a post-apocalyptic Earth; a vision of the planet after a massive disaster.
A pandemic wipes out most of the world's human and animal population. Isherwood Williams is one of a handful of people who survive the devastation. Much of Earth Abides tells the story not only of Ish, but of the impact of such devastation on countless forms of life: everything from beetles to drugs, clothing to domesticated animals.
Earth Abides was originally published in 1949. There's both a naiveté, if you will, and a crystalline awareness of the human ability to destroy and to survive. Stewart assumes that people will survive, will manage. It's not very encouraging to watch though. Through most of the book, Ish and his extended family just get by. They take no initiative; they don't learn to farm, or domesticate animals, to store food of any sort, to sew, tan, harvest, plant, graft, create or make much of anything. One member of the community is a carpenter, so sagging porches are fixed, usually by taking wood beams from a nearby house that's collapsing. They scavenge: canned foods, packaged foods, tools, clothing; there's plenty of everything lying around. They break into old drug stores and warehouses for things like medications (primarily sulfa drugs). They create nothing: there's no new art, no one paints, writers, sings, tells jokes or makes up stories. One couple decorates with useless objects which were part of solid middle class living. They have a living room full of things like phonograph players and electric lamps in a sort of creepy denial/homage to the past.
I found it hard to believe, after the passage of years, that some things would still be safe to eat, or effective to use. Medicines lose potency, and the great part of the story covers more than 20 years. Would you eat a can of peaches that had been sitting around that long? Remember, there is no electricity, no refrigeration. No ice. When the water fails to come through the pipes one day, it's a surprise to the clan; it had never happened before so they thought it never would. This is pre-recycling America, pre-earth day America: plastics and chemistry and modern physics, modern medicine would save us all in these years.
There are small stories of other groups that survive. Once or twice Ish or some younger folks go traveling, using cars (these seem to survive a long time too) to follow maps as best they can, even if none of the younger generation learns to read.
There is much to admire in Earth Abides. The scope, the details Stewart writes about are so thought-provoking. There are few pronouncements, no terror, no fear to deal with. Certainly those things exist, but so is the practical need to get on with life, such as it is. While Ish does initially travel around and meet up with a few other survivors, he ends up "home," in the house where he grew up. He's not a very interesting guy, but he is who we have, and we get to watch a rather ordinary man become the center of a community; their thinker and their wise man, at times. Their philosopher when there's heavy stuff to be dealt with and the man who decides things.
It is disappointing and pretty unbelievable that no one in the new "world," (at least the ones we know) has a sense of initiative or wonder. The library survived, and it is full not only of books that tell you about plumbing and planting, insects and rain, building and recipes, but also works of fiction and fantasy, children's books and books for adults. Books about paintings and probably some photographs of other countries. Yet not one person seems to find the need to either learn or to escape. There's one child who shows any intellectual curiosity. Indeed, it was hard to imagine what exactly these people would do all day.
Any society wants distraction, doesn't it? Even if the magic devices are gone, why wasn't anyone even the least bit curious about the faces on the coins, or where silk came from, or what was ice cream anyway? How did cars work and why do birds go south? What is a diamond? Anything. How to make a shirt fit better -- even if you have a stockpile of shirts, cloth will get thin and rot after years. I'm not any great fixer or explorer, but I would hope at least to learn how to do something. In the older generation, put it down to massive shock: their world ended. But what about the newer generation, the children?
As post-apocalyptic "end of the world" scenarios go, this one's quiet. There aren't religious fanatics trying to take over (there is a hint of one that exists when two of the boys go traveling, but they bypassed it and moved on pretty quickly.) Everyone is fairly standard -- straight, mostly of Christian and European descent. No surprise there, I guess. There is one woman who seems brain-damaged or was retarded. The group looks after her with care and concern and expects nothing from her. In fact, it is her well-being that drives the group to perform the one shocking act in the book.
Earth Abides is a literary form, a type; a big idea coming from that now very different time of the late postwar 1940s. A time fading in memory, when the technology of today was unheard of, and the big issues were still the weight of the atomic bomb, the concept of genocide, the growth of the Cold War. I would guess perhaps some folks find nostalgia in it -- and certainly there are object lessons -- but it's hard to shake off the intervening 50-plus years and the story left me wanting.
This book has value for the story it does tell. My complaints are more for what it doesn't do, which may be unfair but is unavoidable. I would have liked seeing what more curious people would have made of their new world. | April 2006
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.