Gail's Reviews > Earth Abides

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
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Aug 01, 2012

it was amazing

Because it is impossible to escape hearing about the upcoming end of the world this year, why not indulge in some thought-provoking literature to add some philosophical commentary to this concept? Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart provides just this food-for-thought in a novel published first in 1949, but still so relevant to humanity today.
The culprit in this post-apocalypse novel is not of the man-made type, but a pandemic culling most of the world’s population, leaving a few surviving stragglers. Isherwood “Ish” Williams is one of those survivors and the main character of this story. Happy to be off alone in the wilderness, performing research for his PhD, he stumbles back into civilization with only his hammer, after being bitten by a rattlesnake, to which he later credits his survival. As he slowly discovers the annihilation, he battles with himself as to whether he prefers to remain alone or seek out any other survivors. Ish flees from the first opportunity to meet another person. When he looks again for the human-caused smoke, he has a certain sense of relief to not see it, yet an even stronger sense of disappointment.
He decides to embark on a journey across the country to see what he can find. Fearful of consequences, he finally concludes that “nothing more than my death can happen. What am I afraid of?” He then resolves, if he is to live at all, he would live without fear.
Ish eventually gains a companion in a dog, and finds a woman to live with. As they learn to adapt to such a changed world, the question of whether to bring a baby into it surfaces. “Who was he to set mankind on the long and uncertain road to the future?” But when a child is conceived, his despair becomes hope.
Gradually the little tribe increases by the addition of other travelers, and the birth of more children. Ish becomes the leader and realizes that the preservation of knowledge is up to him. All the world’s information is contained in the nearby university library (no internet in 1949!) which he makes an effort to preserve, along with music, culture, and literature. He tries teaching the younger generation, but in this new world order, he wonders whether geography and history really matter anymore. Cars and transportation have failed, the electricity gave out soon after the disaster, and people now just live day to day. “If you lost the continuity of time”, he thinks, “you lost something that might never be recovered. Time was history, history was tradition, tradition was civilization”.
Throughout this book, Ish’s hammer serves as a symbol of strength and unity. Brought out of the wilderness with him after being snake-bitten, it was used for security in the first days. Later, carrying it with him constantly, it had become an object of superstition to the rest of the tribe. It had somehow come to have a life of its own and given its owner a special power. He realizes in his later days that he must have become a god – he had never wished to become a god. It was irrational, but “perhaps rationalism had only been one of the luxuries which men could afford under civilization.”
As Ish reaches the end of his days, he comes to understand that his sacred library, repository of all knowledge, was of no importance any longer as the world had changed. He realizes that a man should make peace with himself, even though all conditions have changed, and that a man should face the question of whether in his life he had satisfied the ideas which he had built up within himself as to what he should be and that all this was not a matter of priests and religion but of a man himself.
In addition to these philosophical questions the protagonist wrestles with, the book also presents, in separate Italicized paragraphs, the biological and ecological results of the decimation of the human population, which I found quite interesting, and appropriate since Ish was researching the ecology of the area at the time. If you’re going to read one apocalypse novel before “the end”, make it this one – it will stay with you.
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