I found out about this book from Moid (@ MediaDeathCult on youtube). This was on his list of top 100 SF books (#9). The premise of course was intriguing because of Covid19. The other option for reading a “virus kills everyone” Book was Stephen King’s The Stand, and I gotta admit that the reason why I chose this one was basic maths. This book is just over 300 pages long, whereas The Stand is a million pages long (1100ish). You could seriously injure a person by throwing the book at them.
Enough empty talk, let’s get down to business.
George R. Stewart, a professor of English, wrote several books on history and toponymy, but only one SF novel. Earth Abides was first published in 1949. This novel was the first recipient of the International Fantasy Award in 1951. Stephen King mentioned this book as the inspiration for The Stand.
Earth Abides opens with a geography graduate, Isherwood, doing research in the woods of California, away from everyone. He is bitten by a snake and unable to go for help. During his fight with the snake bite, he has a bad moment, with rash appearing over his body and his temperature skyrocketing. Two strange men come to his cabin, and instead of helping him they run away as soon as they see that he’s ill. He recovers enough to drive himself to the nearest town and is greeted by an unsettling scene – there’s no one around. No people just a corpse here and there. In the local newspapers he reads about an illness that had struck the entire world and killed almost everyone.
He continues to a larger town, his hometown of Berkeley, in hopes of meeting other survivors. He meets some, but their condition is not one which appeals to him – one person trying to drink himself to death, other survivors have gone completely crazy… He decides to travel to the east coast in the hopes that in the larger cities there might still be some remnants of a government.
After his return from the road trip, Ish settles in Berkeley with a woman and they set up a small community. The rest of the book follows their attempts at surviving without all the amenities of the modern world that they’d gotten used to.
The book is an analysis of what a small community of average humans would do when removed from all the benefits of the modern society – electricity, running water, medical attention… We see them struggle with basic notions like keeping track of time (days, months, and years), educating the next generation, growing food and defending themselves.
I know that Covid19 is nothing like this disease, but this book did make me think about certain things. Mainly the fact that I’m grateful that I live in a country that has so many sources of drinking water and the fact that I live in a small village where people still know how to grow their own food. During the first quarantine in 2020, our neighbours could not sell their fruit and vegetable at the green market, so we shared with each other. This is not possible in larger urban areas and we see that in this book.
Back to the book. Even though the book is clearly written by a smart person, the main character is not really a smart person. It takes him over a year to realize that keeping track of time and seasons might come in useful. No members of the community ever go and check the state of the potable water source, which of course leads to problems. It takes them 2 or 3 years to start growing their own food. They never really raise cattle. They basically revert to being hunter-gatherers despite of millennia of knowledge on agriculture and animal husbandry at their fingertips. Stupid if you ask me.
This serves as a way to make us think – if the survivors are stupid wouldn’t it have been better if everyone had just died? It also made me consider if the shock of losing everything that kept a society functioning would just destroy the minds of even the smartest people. Would smarter people really start growing food and keeping track of time and seasons if they survived an event like this? Or would they too revert to basic mode of gathering? Would they do even that?
The way Ish behaves is very annoying at times. He wants people to start preparing for the future but he himself isn’t preparing for the future. He complains that no one is helping him, but he does nothing to encourage help from anyone. We all know that kids need to be taught to help around the house from an early age. There’s no point in expecting a kid to do their chores at 15 if you’d spent the previous 14 years doing everything for them. Silly silly Ish.
As for the writing style, I love it how Stewart just gives you a clear and concise explanation of problems the characters meet. There’s no embellishment or skirting around the issue. I appreciate that.
Another aspect of the book are the italicized parts that are scattered throughout the book. At first it seemed like they were the writings of Ish (while I still believed him to be a reasonable person) from the future. They offer scientific analysis and explanations of the situations he comes across. Later you realize that those can’t have been written by Ish. There is a moment when the author refers to “Uncle Ish.” By the end of the book you realize that Ish has become almost a mythical figure and that “Uncle” reference is not necessarily a true family connection between the author and our protagonist.
Another problem for identifying the author of the italicized parts is the fact that the writings change tone halfway through the book. In the first half of the novel the notes are very impersonal, scientific, removed from humanity almost. They feel like they might have been written by an alien civilization, or Earth itself (my favourite explanation, even though it is impossible). In the second part of the novel they become more subjective, more personal. A strange thing, that is. It left me with a lot of questions, and not that many answers.
And the same goes for the book overall. It’s not a masterpiece of prose. It’s not filled with quotable passages. The characters are not of the inspirational kind. But despite all that the book just ends up getting under your skin. It makes you feel things. It makes you angry and annoyed. It makes you question your own dependence on technology and societal institutions. It also makes you question your own abilities. Questions all over the place. And this, in my opinion, is a sign of a good and worthwhile book.
Go and read it while Covid is still around. It’s fun.
Despite what I just said, there are some quotes here 😊
“The trouble you’re expecting never happens; it’s always something that sneaks up the other way.”
““Genius is the capacity for seeing what is not there.” Of course, like every other definition of genius, that one could be shot to pieces also, because it obviously included the madman, as well as the genius.”
“Men go and come, but earth abides.”