It’s strange to say, but George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides is a curiously hopeful post-apocalyptic novel. It’s also masterfully written, elegant and subtle as it takes you from disaster to survival. I don’t know what I was expecting from this book–probably just a good yarn with some sociology thrown in–but I ended up with a brilliant read.
The book starts with a snake bite. The protagonist, Isherwood “Ish” Williams, is collecting data for this thesis when he is bitten by a rattlesnake. He takes himself back to his cabin to recuperate. The next thing he knows, he’s apparently the last man alive. A newspaper tells him that a particularly virulent disease has killed millions. Lacking anything better to do, Ish travels across the country, meeting a few survivors and observing the changes to the environment. The language is clinical, scientific, modern. The first third of the bottle is about what you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic novel. As Ish takes stock of his new world, you can’t help but think about what will happen when the electricity fails, when the stocked up food will give out, when the few survivors decide to go Mad Max.
Eventually, Ish meets up with a few other survivors that he can band together with. He finds a wife and friends. Slowly, he builds up a community that, for lack of anything better, they call the Tribe. Years zip by. The novel ends up about 40 years after the plague (as far as I can tell). Ish is an old man, cared for by his great-grandchildren. The language by the end of the book is less objective. The science is gone. Ish has given up his ecological and anthropological observations. By the end of the book, when Ish asks if one of his great-grandson is happy, the answer is: “Yes, I am happy. Things are as they are, and I am part of them” (322*).
The change over the course of the book is subtle. At the beginning, as I said, it’s utterly depressing. You can’t help but wonder if, as Ish wonders, if this is it for humanity. Maybe too many people died. Maybe too many skills died out and the survivors won’t last long. But as Ish and the Tribe grow, I started to feel hopeful. Ish fears for the loss of knowledge as all but one of the children show a marked lack of interest the knowledge Ish tries to pass on. He wonders if his little tribe will survive beyond a couple of generations once the canned food runs out. (It’s rather surprising how long it does last.)
What I realized by the end of the book–as Ish does–is that humanity does carry on. The civilization that we know is gone. Ish’s Tribe becomes more tribal as time goes on. Sure, it’s sad that the knowledge of our world is lost, that the big university library will probably rot away with no one to read it. But there are still people. Humanity will go on.
Earth Abides is a terrific read. I’m very glad that I picked it up and I wish that more people would give it a chance. Unlike modern post-apocalyptic novels, this one doesn’t play up the horror. Instead, it’s a sober, philosophical medication on what might happen if humanity had to start over.
* Stewart, George R. Earth Abides. New York: Ballantine Books, 2006. Del Ray trade paperback edition.