Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) won the International Fantasy Award and was selected as one of David Pringle’s Best 100 SF Novels, but I’m guessing many SFF readers have never heard of it. You may have heard of pastoral SF (ala Clifford Simak), and this book may be best classified as post-holocaust pastoral SF, perhaps even “bucolic SF” (similar books include Leigh Bracket’s Long Tomorrow and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon). In Earth Abides, civilization is wiped out by a mysterious and never-explained virus, but our intrepid protagonist Isherwood Williams (“Ish” to his buddies) makes the best of a primitive existence, first surviving alone by scavenging from the bountiful remains of grocery stores, hardware shops, and gas stations, and eventually gathering together a few stragglers to create a very basic family group of people and a stripped-down version of society that is basically happy, healthy, and utterly lacking in introspection or regrets about the loss of modern civilization. Ish is a former graduate student, and therefore understands and treasures the knowledge represented by the books that remain in libraries, but as his children and grandchildren are born into this new post-industrial world, their interest in the old world wanes with each successive generation. It becomes clear that life will go on without any reference to the past, as the title alludes to: “Men come and go, but earth abides.”
The book is filled with lush and loving descriptions of the steady, unperturbable rhythms of nature, weather, animals, and plants. The events of the story are sparse and could be summarized into just a dozen episodes, but the core of the story is the thoughts of Ish on the fall of civilization, and his gradual realization that it is gone and will not return, and his coming to accept this.
Thanks to reading this on my Kindle app, I discovered the handy highlight function and picked out a few representative passages:
That fact, when he thought of it, sometimes even made the Great Disaster seem beneficent — a magnificent wiping off of the slate which allowed man as a species to escape from of the aches and pains he had been accumulating for so many centuries, and start anew.
Perhaps there were too many people, too many old ways of thinking, too many books. Perhaps the ruts of thinking had grown too deep and the refuse of the past lay too deep around us, like piles of garbage and old clothes. Why should not the philosopher welcome the wiping-out of it all and a new start and men playing the game with fresh rules? There would be, perhaps, more gain than loss.
Must we not think then that this great civilization grew up not by men’s desires, but rather by Forces and Pressures. Step by step, as villages grew larger, men must give up the free wandering life of berry-picking and seed-gathering and tie themselves to the security (and drudgery) of agriculture. Step by step, as villages grew more numerous, men must renounce the excitement of the hunt for the security (and drudgery) of cattle-keeping. Then at last it was like Frankenstein’s vast monster. They had not willed it, but it ruled them all. And so by a thousand little surreptitious paths they tried to escape.
Yes, the future was certain. The Tribe was not going to restore civilization. It did not want civilization. For a while the scavenging would go on — this opening of cans, this expending of cartridges and matches stored up from the past, all this uncreative but happy manner of life. Then at last, sooner or later, there would be more and more people, and the supplies would fail. There would perhaps be no quick catastrophe because cattle could be had for the taking, and life would go on.
So why the 3.5 star rating? I enjoyed the opening section detailing Ish’s early months of survival and finally discovering a female companion to share his existence and then restart the populace. But the longer middle section takes its sweet time describing the bucolic daily existence of their growing family, and wouldn’t be out of place in any story of country existence other than short passages from an omniscient narrator. Certainly there are some setbacks and tragedies, but I found myself getting bored and skipping through a lot of this.
However, the final section of the book, when Ish has reached old age and is treated as a sort of god or oracle by his progeny, has some moving and melancholic reminiscing about the old world and the new, and is very profound. So in many ways the middle bit could be skimmed and you would still get the main effect and intent of the narrative. It remains a remarkable statement of a yearning for a simpler, pre-industrial existence, while still acknowledging the sadness and loss associated with the disappearance of all man’s hard-won knowledge and history.
Nice to see a fresh look at a classic!