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George Stewart was a historian who wrote fiction as well as novels. Earth Abides was first written in 1949 and it is only fair to view this book in the context of the times. There are several attitudes I took offense at, but it isn't really fair to judge a work which is over 60 years old by todays standards, and the author was not a young man when the book was written. He was born in 1895, so his views reflect those of time long past.
The protagonist of this story is Isherwood Williams, or Ish, a graduate student spending some time alone in a remote mountain location to work on a thesis. Isolated as he is, the death of the world as he knows it takes place without his knowledge. It is only when he returns to civilisation that he discovers it no longer exists. In his absence, the vast majority of the human race has perished, struck down by some unknown plague which apparently was highly virulent, quick moving and fate. This book is not about the death of the old world, but the birth of a new one, and while this work has been classed as dystopian, it is many ways a highly utopian view of the new world.
Ish will eventually find a wife, have children and gather around him a few other survivors around whom a new tribe will form. This isn't a spoiler, this is all on the blurb and it is obvious from the outset. This is no Omega Man. Although other human survivors are known to exist, there is no trade or contact and thankfully no warfare. There is no competition for resources with survivors few and far between. Ish and his wife Emma are joined by a likable Englishman, Ezra who had taken two wives after the fall of civilisation, the child of one of his wives, and another child, Evie, described as " a half wit" who may very well have been autistic but equally likely may have just been so damaged by the being left alone among the dead for too long at such a young age. Finally , we have George and his wife Maurine, whom Ish looks down as very middle class and stupid. George is a handyman, a carpenter by trade who quickly turns his hand to roofing, plumbing and any other repairs that need done, but as intellectual, Ish feels George is beneath him. This book primarily deals with Ish's attempts to rebuild civilisation, but also the way new world shapes itself, often against Ish's intentions.
My biggest problem with the book is that I never particularly liked Ish. The book is told from his perspective, and he considers himself the leader of the community, but as he often points out, he talks a lot but no one listens. He considers himself superior to everyone else as an intellectual, but in my opinion, George's skill as a carpenter is far more useful than Ish's univeristity education. Before meeting his wife, he meets three black survivors and comments that he could have set himself up to live as king, with them doing all the work and deferring to him. I found the height of arrogance. More likely they'd have just taken an axe or hammer to him if he attempted to reinstitute slavery. Of course Ish doesn't do this, he is morally superior as he often points out, but he lets us know he could have. and I could have slapped him had he been a real person rather than a fictional character.
I also despised Ish's attitude toward Evie. He often mentions that perhaps they should have euthanized her and seems to resent her being allowed to live. It isn't his call, she is incapable of caring for herself, but Ezra and his family are quite happy to look after her and keep her comfortable. She never learns to communicate, and both men agree she should not be allowed to have children. I can agree with this on one level, but not for Ish's reasons. My feelings are that if she can not speak or communicate - she can give her consent - so it would be very close to rape or child molestation for any man to be with her. Further, she could not care for a child and I can only imagine that childbirth would be terrifying for someone with no idea what is happening. Ish however sees her as potential threat to the gene pool, but even if she never has her children, he still doesn't really want to her to live, as if her very presence offends him. He always talks about her as if she is disgusting. He mentions that he could have left poison in her reach, and his disgust at the poor girl is intensified when she grows up beautiful - if he were a real person, I would wonder if his revulsion masked something else. There is more than enough food, they have unlimited canned goods so it isn't a question of conserving resources for productive members of the clan - he does very little himself besides lecture and pontificate, so if the unproductive were earmarked for slaughter, he'd be first in the line. Someone definitely should have slapped him at some point.
On the other hand, when Ish discovers his wife is half black ( he doesn't notice until she is pregnant and tells him) he has no problems whatsoever with it, announcing that racism will cease to exist in the future. Nice thought, and in some ways very progressive for a late 1940's American to write about love and marriage between a mixed race couple. It would have been nicer though if he didn't mention that her accepting, ( submissive) behaviour was a result of her race. At this point, I wish she had slapped him.
One of the points that stayed with me the most was the loss of literacy. I honestly could not see this happening in most circumstances, most parents would have taught their children just as American colonists taught theirs. In the USA prior to compulsory education there was a 98% literacy rate. However, as the author is an intellectual himself, very much like the main character, I can understand his ignorance of developing literacy. The main character felt that only in a school type setting could literacy be achieved, so he attempted to enforce this on the children of the tribe, with himself as the teacher. He managed to making reading an unpleasant enough activity, that within a generation, the ability to read was completely lost. He seems to view this as the result of having people of inferior intellects allowed into the gene pool, including his wife, he never takes responsibility himself, once again - someone should slap the man.
I also had a problem with the authors idea of stench free apocalypse. Yes there were a few places with unburied dead, but very few. With only the tiniest fraction of a percent of humanity left alive, people still found time to make sure the dead were buried. People hadn't panicked, rioted, looted or fled the cities en masse. Mass graves were resorted to, but someone turned up and dug them and filled them all in, with whole families dead in a matter of days, someone must have gone door to door collecting the dead. I just can't imagine a plague of such epic proportions being nearly so tidy.
Despite my problems with the main character, I did still enjoy this book. It was often entertaining, at least mildly, and it thought provoking at times. The main character often mentions the belief that life forms have some critical mass, that nature has some inbuilt population control. Once the population becomes too large, disease or some other means decimates them. There are several questions of morality, and while I disagree with the main character, whom I strongly suspect voices the authors own opinion, it does still give you something to think about.
I feel a bit wick giving a classic of such distinction a relatively low rating. I do want to make very clear that very few people share my opinion of this book, and you should not judge this by my review alone. I would suggest reading a few other reviews at the very least. This book does have several good points. It is not dated other than the attitudes towards the disabled and other races, which certainly still exist but we like to pretend they don't. It is well written, and it raises several interesting points. I believe this book would be enjoyed far more by someone with a different view on race, disability and class, and perhaps I should make more allowances for the passage of the time. The funniest part is that while the Ish seems concerned with atavistic nature of man, it his beliefs that now read like a horrible throwback to another time. Finally, to give credit where credit is due, at least Stewart certainly knew how to make his main character come to life. The fact that he is a fictional character and I wanted to slap almost ( but not quite) as much as Michael Gove speaks volumes of his skill at character development.
If you've read any of my previous reviews, you will be aware of my frequent use of hyperbole. This book was not available for review until I suggested it to Dooyoo. Had it been here on day one, I would have reviewed it then and used about a year's worth of hyperbole in a single box of text.
Earth Abides is the only notable Science Fiction work by George R Stewart. First published in 1949, it is an early work of post-apocalyptic fiction and some would argue it has still to be beaten. Stephen King cites it as the inspiration for "The Stand" and knowing this fact, you will become aware of many similarites as you turn each page.
It is the story of Isherwood Williams, who manages to be both an everyman (a common story telling device - think Winston Smith in Orwell's "1984") and a fascinating character who learns much about himself in much the same way you learn about him throughout the book.
Isherwood is alone, deep in the woods when the unspecified apocalypse takes place. He is recovering from a snake bite and it is probable that his deep, fevered slumber helps him survive when so many others don't.
The world he wanders through, and spends his life trying to rebuild, is the world of 1949 but this does nothing to spoil the tale. There are a number of uncomfortable passages in the book - once concerning some "negros" (his words) and the way one survivor who joins his group of survivors is referred to as "stupid" and not allowed to bear children. I don't look upon these moments with great criticism as I wasn't even born in 1949 and for all I know, this is how things were - right or wrong.
Isherwood (or "Ish") wanders initially alone. He first meets Emma ("Em") and they are married, with little fuss and in a few short moments. It is understood between them that they just have to be together and that's the way it is.
The community slowly grows and together they face disease, rats, violent visitors and moral dilemmas. On the flip side, they find happiness in their new world and in their new friendships.
The final chapter takes place 52 years after the first and your 320 page commitment is rewarded with a satisfying and natural ending.
Before "The Survivors", "Jericho" and "I Am Legend" came "Earth Abides". This is the finest example of the genre you will find.