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Cover of the 1949 Random House first edition
|Author||George R. Stewart|
|Cover artist||H. Lawrence Hoffman|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
Cover of the 1949 Random House first edition
|Author||George R. Stewart|
|Cover artist||H. Lawrence Hoffman|
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
Earth Abides is a 1949 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American writer George R. Stewart. It tells the story of the fall of civilization from deadly disease and its rebirth. The story was set in the United States in the 1940s, in Berkeley, California. Isherwood Williams emerges from isolation in the mountains to find almost everyone dead.
Earth Abides won the inaugural International Fantasy Award in 1951. It was included in Locus Magazine's list of best All Time Science Fiction in 1987 and 1998 and was a nominee to be entered into the Prometheus Hall of Fame. In November 1950, it was adapted for the CBS radio program Escape as a two-part drama starring John Dehner.
While working on his graduate thesis in geography in the Sierra mountains, Ish is bitten by a rattlesnake. As he heals from the bite, he gets sick with a disease that looks like measles and he moves in and out of consciousness. He recovers and makes his way back to civilization, only to discover that most people died from the same disease. He goes to his home in Berkeley. In the city near his home Ish meets few human survivors — a man drinking himself to death, a couple who seem to have lost their sanity, and a teenage girl who flees from him as someone dangerous. He comes across a dog (beagle), friendly and eager to join him. The dog, which he names Princess, swiftly adopts Ish as her new master and sticks by him for much of the book. He sets out on a cross country tour, traveling all the way to New York City and back, scavenging for food and fuel as he goes. As he travels, he finds small pockets of survivors, but has doubts about humanity's ability to survive the loss of civilization.
He returns to his home in California, and finds a woman, Emma (Em), living nearby. They agree to consider themselves married and have children. They are joined by other survivors. Over time the electricity fails and the comforts of civilization recede. As the children grow, Ish tries to instill basic academics by teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography, but he is largely unsuccessful.
Many children are born in these years and among them is Joey, Ish's youngest and favorite son. Joey is very similar in nature to Ish, as he demonstrates innate intelligence and a curiosity about the world before the epidemic. This leads Ish to believe that Joey is the key to the future.
Twenty-two years later, the community flourishes. The younger generation adapts easily to the more traditional world. They come to have a better grasp of the natural world than the adults, and when running water fails, the younger generation comes to the rescue, knowing where flowing streams may be found. Ish turns his attention from ecology to his newly forming society. One thing that he notices is that the children are becoming very superstitious. One day Ish asks for his hammer, an antique miner's tool he found in the mountains, which he habitually carries around, and finds the children are afraid to touch it. It is a symbol for them of the old times. The long-dead "Americans" are now like gods—and Ish is too.
As years go by, the community begins to grow corn and make and play with bows and arrows. Ish presides at meetings, his hammer being a symbol of his status. He is given respect, but his ideas are ignored by the younger men.
Ish spends most of his elderly life in a fog, unaware of the world. Superstition has set in; the tribe has reverted to a traditional lifestyle, hunting with dogs and bow and arrow. Occasionally the fog in his mind lifts. During one such time, he finds himself aware of his great-grandson Jack, who stands before him. Jack shows him that the bow and arrow have become more reliable than the gun, whose cartridges don't always work. Ish realizes that the former civilization is now completely gone. But he also wonders if the new world is that much worse off than the old world, and finds himself hoping that the new world will not rebuild civilization and its mistakes.
Isherwood Williams (Ish) is a graduate student at Berkeley, studying the geography of an area in the mountains, somewhere in California. He is sometimes referred to in the book as "The Last American." His nickname, Ish, is an obvious reference to Ishi, the "last Wild Indian."
Emma (Em) is a woman who Isherwood meets in his hometown. The author may have been taking a chance with this character, who is, at least partially, African-American, while Isherwood is white; when the book was written, interracial marriages were heavily discouraged in American society. Isherwood does marry her, and race isn't important to the couple's relationship. Em becomes the community's mother, letting it grow as it will, but stepping in to help when no one else is filling the leadership role. She was the adult while others panicked, and Ish thought of her as the "Mother of Nations".
Ezra meets Emma and Ish while traveling through Berkley, he was a former liquor salesman and immigrant from Yorkshire, England. They liked him, but feared the complications of a love triangle, so they encouraged him to leave. He returned with Molly and Jean, his wives. Ish values Ezra as a good judge of people, saying "Ezra knew people, Ezra liked people."
George is a carpenter by trade. George is not intellectually intelligent but becomes a Jack-of-all-trades able to build, repair or maintain the limited infrastructure of the small community.
Evie is a "half grown girl" who Ezra found living "in squalor and solitude." She appears to have little mind left, if she ever had one, and everyone cares for her. Evie grows into an attractive young woman but the tribe has a rule, that as the children grow no one will marry her—she wouldn't understand, and her mental condition could possibly be hereditary.
Joey is the son of Ish and Em. Of all the children in the Tribe, he is the only one that truly understands the academic skills that Ish tries to teach — geometry, reading, geography. He dies during the typhoid fever outbreak.
Charlie is a stranger who arrives from Los Angeles after two of the "boys" (the second generation) make a scouting expedition in a refurbished Jeep to see what is left of America. Immediately upon his arrival Ish and Ezra become suspicious about Charlie and the type of person he might be. Their suspicions are confirmed a day later when Charlie sets his eye on Evie. He also reveals to Ezra after drinking heavily that he has had many of "Cupids" diseases. Ish confronts Charlie about Evie, Charlie is disrespectful and challenges Ish's authority as leader. It is revealed that Charlie carries a concealed pistol and his behavior reveals himself as someone who was probably a violent criminal before the epidemic. As a result Ish, Emma, Ezra and George debate what to do about Charlie for the safety of the community, exile or execution. Charlie is the carrier of the typhoid epidemic that infects the community.
Jack is Ish's great-grandson. Jack is confident, intelligent and a potential leader. Ish sees something of Joey in him. As Ish dies, he gives Jack his hammer.
On the title page Stewart immediately starts with the theme, quoting Ecclesiastes 1:4 — "Men go and come, but earth abides." For the first half of Earth Abides, George R. Stewart concentrates on a major theme for the book, that humans have no privileged place in nature and are not immune to nature's built-in population controls. The main character, an ecologist, states it plainly, "When anything gets too numerous it's likely to get hit by some plague".
On the first page Stewart tells readers how contagion could bring the end very quickly for mankind:
Within a few pages he makes it clear that basic biology applies to humans too:
Reviewer Noel Perrin has pointed out that George R. Stewart had written two books before this, in which the main character was not a person, but "a natural force." In Storm the main character is weather, and in Fire, a forest fire takes center stage.
In freeing the landscape from humans, half of the book is devoted to looking at how the world would change in their absence. Stewart chose to make his main human character an ecologist, and sends him on a cross country tour, to see what the world is like without people. As animals and plants no longer have humans taking care of them or controlling them, they are free to breed uncontrolled and to prey upon one another. The main character sees that some have been under humans so long that they are helpless in the face of change, while others are still able to adapt and survive. Stewart shows that humans have routinely influenced the lives of almost every plant and animal around them.
Another theme of the book is what happens to human skills as the population decreases. Reviewer Lionel Shriver points out this theme in an article about literature which features human extinction:
Stewart uses the second half of his book to show that, if humans are reduced to low numbers, it will be difficult for them to continue civilization as we know it. Reading becomes a casualty.
And like a candle, a child living without medical institutions and technology can easily be snuffed by the environment.
In the struggle to survive, natural selection culls humans whose culture isn't survival- oriented; if skills and customs don't work in the new situation, these die out, or those holding them do. Children adapt naturally to the new situation, and immediately useful customs and skills are more interesting to them than reading and writing. The information in libraries is useless within a generation.
One custom that Stewart predicts could die out is racism. When there are fewer partners to choose from, mankind will not be able to afford to be too choosy in picking one's partner.
Another issue he brings up is how law and order will function, when the lawmakers, courts and enforcers are all gone. Even laws won't be immune to the pressure to survive. One of the characters in the book point out, "What laws?" when they have to determine the fate of an outsider. Stewart shows how people may come to worry about potential harm rather than justice when dealing with outsiders.
Having explored the depopulated Earth, Stewart shifts his thematic focus in part 2 and 3, from the biological theme of population crash to a biblical theme of populating the world.
A 1949 book review says that Earth Abides parallels two biblical stories that shows mankind spreading out and populating the world:
Stewart, who specialized in meanings of names, chose names in Hebrew that have appropriate meanings for the biblical theme; this couple who restart the human tribe are symbolically man and mother. In Stewart’s day, most Hebrew dictionaries stated that Ish means "man" (although a more accurate English equivalent is "participant"), and Em means "mother". Both terms figure prominently in the biblical story of Adam and Eve: Ish in Genesis 2:23, and Em in Genesis 3:20.
In addition to the Hebraic names in Earth Abides, the story also has a symbol in common with biblical tradition—the snake. Ish encounters a rattlesnake; before this event he is part of a larger civilization. After it bites him, his world changes, just as the snake changes Adam's world in the Genesis story. Adam loses paradise, and Ish finds civilization dead.
Aside from the biblical origin of Ish, there is another tale of the fall of civilization that George R. Stewart could have taken account of, the story of Ishi, the last of his tribe, who lived at Berkeley, where Stewart later taught. Ish is very similar to Ishi, and it also means "man", in the language of a man whose whole tribe was dead. Ishi's story parallels the Genesis and Earth Abides stories, telling of one who has to adapt to a changed world.
Earth Abides fits into the "post-apocalyptic" subgenre of science fiction. It was published in 1949, four years after the end of World War II and in the earliest stages of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. While post-apocalyptic fiction is now quite common, Earth Abides distinctly predates many similar well-known novels including Alas, Babylon (1959), A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), and The Last Ship (1988). It is predated, however by The Last Man (1826), The Machine Stops (1909), The Scarlet Plague (1912), and René Barjavel's Ashes, Ashes (Ravage, 1943), among others.
A common theme of post-apocalyptic works is, "What if the world we know no longer exists," and each of these books paints a different picture of the future. Earth Abides explores such issues as family structure, education, the meaning and purpose of civilization, and the basic nature of humankind — especially in regard to religion, superstition, and custom. As it was written in the beginning years of the cold war, it lacks some common post-apocalyptic conventions found in later novels: there are no warlords or biker gangs (as in Mad Max); there is no fear of atomic weapons or radiation, no mutants and no warring tribes (as in A Canticle for Leibowitz). When the main character in Earth Abides travels through the country, he notices little sign of there having been violence or civil unrest during the plague period. Many areas seem to have been evacuated, and only in or near hospitals are there large numbers of corpses.
According to WorldCat.org, there have been 28 editions of Earth Abides published in English. The book has been in print in every decade from 1949 to 2008.
This is a book, mind you, that I'd place not only among the greatest science fiction but among our very best novels. Each time I read it, I'm profoundly affected, affected in a way only the greatest art — Ulysses, Matisse or Beethoven symphonies, say — affects me. Epic in sweep, centering on the person of Isherwood Williams, Earth Abides proves a kind of antihistory, relating the story of humankind backwards, from ever-more-abstract civilization to stone-age primitivism.
Astounding reviewer P. Schuyler Miller identified the novel as one of the first regarding "a young and little understood science, the science of ecology." Miller praised Steward for "the intricacy of detail with which he has worked out his problem in ecology" and for writing "quietly, with very few peaks of melodrama as seem necessary in much popular fiction."
It was mentioned in a serious overview of modern science fiction, Contemporary Science Fiction by August Derleth, in the January 1952 edition of College English. Derleth called it an "excellent example" of the "utopian theme" of "rebuilding after a holocaust leaving but few survivors."
It was described as a persuasive answer to the question, "What is man," in the October, 1974 edition of Current Anthropology. The article "Anthropology and Science Fiction" examines the nature of Science Fiction and its relationship to understanding people. The magazine concluded of Earth Abides that it shows ..."man is man, be he civilized or tribal. Stewart shows us that a tribal hunting culture is just as valid and real to its members as civilization is to us."
In the 1959 review of On the Beach, the mechanism of worldwide death used by Earth Abides, "a mysterious plague, arisen from some obscure ecological imbalance", was seen as not up to date. To the reviewer, a rain of radioactive particles was more current.
The article "Population in Literature" by Lionel Shriver from the Population and Development Review, June 2003, found the reverse. "Most doomsday novels feature war or disease...with the fears of the bomb receding, and AIDS in ascendancy, plague novels have become more in vogue."
In the American Quarter article California's Literary Regionalism, Autumn 1955, George R. Stewart is seen as a "humanist in the old classical sense. His novels, Storm, Fire, East of the Giants, Earth Abides, demonstrate the complex interlocking of topography, climate, and human society; and their general tone is objective and optimistic."
The book makes a reference to Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. Ish compares the situations within these books to what he is going through. He finds Robinson Crusoe less appealing, because "his religious preoccupations seemed boring and rather silly". He looks at the ship in the Swiss Family Robinson as an "infinite grab-bag from which at any time they might take exactly what they wanted," which is similar to the situation of those living after the Great Disaster.
Earth Abides has been translated into: