Earth Abides

Earth Abides

Postby Dave Z » Fri Dec 29, 2023 11:35 pm

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

This multi-generational novel is almost entirely post-cataclysmic. The protagonist, "Ish" survives a severe bout of illness at a remote camp, then returns to find that the vast majority of everyone is dead by pandemic. The rest of the novel plays out, therefore, in a slowly fading 'Grace Period'.

Ish eventually makes contact with a few others and they form a small community. Together, they have and raise children, and cope with successive waves of post-human flora, fauna and entropy, along with the challenges of environment and interlopers.

Ish is an intellectual, and his hopes for the future are much in line with those of The Knowledge, particularly in the aim to rebuild civilization. While he, himself is lacking in many basic skills, he is an avid reader and has the libraries of San Francisco to draw upon. He attempts to inspire the other adults, and educate the children in the conceptual tools of the past.

In the main, he does not succeed in his goals. Post cataclysmic left-overs provide food and material abundance, and scavenging is so much easier - and more attractive - than learning reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, much less theory of anything. The adults are uninspired, and the children can't relate to a world they never knew.

Eventuallty, and through the wisdom of his wife, Em, he relaxes his goals, and engages the children's sense of play to teach some of the basic survival inventions (e.g., bow and arrow and fire-bow-drill) to kickstart the future.


Written in 1949, the novel is, in many ways dated. In others, Stewart's vision feels clear and well considered, and I was astounded at the depth and scope of his reflections. The spectacular backdrop is preminiscent of the series Life Without People, released 60 years after the novel.

That being said it is somewhat of a challenge to separate the author's vision from his protagonist's. Ish is caught up in the patriarchal and egoistic machismo of the time, but Em is ever given the quiet, thoughtful and decisive afterword, to which Ish is both reflective and responsive. Where Ish is prone to grandiose impulses, ever the author brings him gently to heel.

By the end, the very program of Civilization has come under question. Why NOT live happily in the moment. Why NOT revel in freedom, rather than submit one's self to the drudgeries of 'productive work'. Is humankind happier in nature, or in a self-imposed domestication? No conclusion or assurance is offered; no claim made... that is ultimately left to the reader, with the question left wide open.


Perhaps the clue to interpretation (and a subtle one it turns out to be!) lies in the opening quotation of the second part (the first, post-cataclysmic generation is coming into adulthood):

There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us;
For thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans!

-- J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur, from Letters from an American Farmer

On the whole, the novel is multi-layered in the extreme. It does not so much persuade as paint a picture for our consideration. And a rich picture it is.

I've sheered away from Earth Abides for decades, despite its place of privilege among works of Cataclysm, on grounds of its age. Now, having finally read it, I consider it among the best of the genre. Stewart's writing remains relevant for the questons we all face today in considering Cataclysm and its aftermath.


Dave Z
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