Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Written in 1949, Earth Abides is a post-apocalyptic novel that explores what happens to civilization as we know it when a viral pandemic wipes out the vast majority of people. Isherwood "Ish" Williams, a solitary graduate student with an interest in ecology and in studying the relationship between man and nature, is one of the few survivors. His curiosity to see what will happen next is what helps keep him alive.
"In spite of the horror of the situation he felt a curious spectator's sense about it all, as if he were watching the last act of a great drama. This, he realized, was characteristic of his personality. He was a student, an incipient scholar, and such a one was necessarily oriented to observe, rather than to participate."
In Part I, Ish criss-crosses the country with his beagle, Princess, hoping to find a community of like-minded survivors he can join, but the few people he meets along the way are not people he wants to make a life with. So he returns to his home in California where he chances upon a woman named Em.
The strangeness! In the old world, it might well never have happened. Out of destruction had come, for him, love.
Part II begins 21 years later. The Tribe, made up of Ish and Em and their children and a few other families has survived, but they haven't really begun to create their own society; they still depend on scavenged items like matches and canned food (which would NOT still be good after 20+ years). And none of them seem too interested in perpetuating even the most basic skills like reading and math. Ish tries, but there is a lethargy to the others in his tribe that he is helpless to change. And at last he gives up.
His observation of what was happening kept him interested in life. At first, just after the Great Disaster, he had devoted himself to observing the changes in the world as the result of the disappearance of man. After twenty-one years, however, the world had fairly adjusted itself ... now, the problem of society--its adjustment and reconstruction--had moved to the fore and become his chief interest.
Still, the Tribe continues on, and Ish continues to observe them until the end of his life. Children are born. Others die. The rats from the city reach a population crisis and swarm. As do the ants, and the  wild cows. One stranger threatens their way of life. Typhoid strikes. There's a fire. And civilization as we know it dies out along with Ish, the last one who can remember it.


"Men go and come, but earth abides." --Ecclesiastes 1:4

This is a quiet, introspective novel, and a thoughtful look at what could happen if 98% of mankind was wiped out all at once. But for me it was a little disappointing. I kept waiting for what was happening to matter more to those involved...or for something more to happen. But the novel, like the members of Ish's tribe, just kept plodding along. Year after year, with little sense of urgency. I found it a little frustrating. There should be more drama when the world ends, shouldn't there? Don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad read, and Stewart writes well, I just found it hard to care about any of his characters other than Ish, and Ish himself held back a lot and mostly thought about and observed what was happening without taking action to change any of it. Although, he did teach the children to make bows and arrows. And his Tribe does end up surviving. So there you go. But it all felt so removed from me that I wasn't that invested in any of it; mostly, I just didn't care.  Supposedly, this is the novel that inspired Stephen King's The Stand, but King's post-apocalyptic saga is a much more interesting and compelling read, with lots of characters that you can root for, at least in my opinion.

Happy Reading!

22 comments:

  1. Hmmm. I thought I might like this one, but as I finished your review, I was less sure. A little less plodding and a little more action suits me better. One of the reasons I loved Robinson Crusoe as a child was his innovation. Since then there have been so many "survival" books that have intrigued me with the way folks might adapt and possibly thrive under difficult conditions.

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    1. I didn't love the pacing of this one. And the fact that I didn't connect with any of the characters didn't help. Still, it was interesting.

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  2. I love post-apocalyptic novels, but I have little patience for slooowwww ones. Sounds like this one would be too much of a plod for me.

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    1. Sadly, it was a bit of a plod for me.

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  3. Well, dang. I’ve had this one on my shelf forever. Looks like there’s no point to get to it sooner. Maybe King wrote The Stand because he figured he could do better. ;)

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  4. I really enjoy post-apocalyptic stories, but have a hard time with books that just plod along. It seems like I need to check out Stephen King's The Stand, though.

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    1. The Stand is good...but very long. And I'm with you, I love a good post-apocalyptic story, too; I had high hopes for this one, but it fell a little short. :)

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  5. I'm not a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction (with some notable exceptions), but it does seem that the end of civilization should evoke more of a reaction, more of a desire to either retain or recreate the past civilization, or create a new utopia in opposition to it. I don't think I'll be picking this one up, for which I thank you — my tbr pile is overwieldy as it is. Great review!

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  6. It is always interesting to go back to those early books that helped establish a genre. Sometimes they hold up and sometimes they don't! I wonder to how much of the plot (or the plod) was tempered by the author's mid-century worldview having just experienced a world war.

    I sort of have this book on my mental list. I want to read all the canonical Sci-Fi and Fantasy works, or at least give them a shot.

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    1. I think Stewart's whole point of writing this book was to think about what would happen to the earth if man were gone, and why those things would happen, and how long it would take. And in that respect, his novel is great. It's just not an exciting or compelling story.

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  7. What a disappointment. I was intrigued until I read your thoughts of it. I'll probably skip this and read The Stand instead. ;p

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    1. Yeah, The Stand is better storytelling for sure. :)

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  8. I don't tend to do well with apocalypse novels written that long ago. I tend to find them a bit too slow for me and often over descriptive. I'd probably give this one a miss but yea for the beagle!

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    1. You nailed it...this one was too slow and overly descriptive. But I did like the beagle. :)

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  9. Hi Lark, great review. It sounds like a book I might want to try out although I get what you mean about how it's probably a depressing read as well. If a plague were to wipe out 98 percent of the population I wonder if this is probably how humans would behave, We might just give up. I think what the book shows is how hard it is to rebuild civilization once its been destroyed. It would be so overwhelming there might not be any energy left to rebuild.

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    1. It does a good job of showing that. And it's a very thoughtful take on life on earth and how easily it can disappear. I didn't hate it...I just didn't love it either. But I'd love to know what you think of it! :)

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  10. I love post apocalyptic fiction. This sounds like an interesting premise, but I think I would also have problems with the lack of drama!

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    1. I wanted to be pulled into the action, not just be a spectator on the sidelines. That was my one big problem with this book.

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  11. I've never heard of this one. Sounds a little to meh for my tastes. Have you read The Death of Grass by John Christopher? It was written in 1956 but I loved it.

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    1. I have not read that one, but I'll look for it. Thanks for the recommendation! :)

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