Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

(Cover picture courtesy of Tertulia Moderna.)

An instant classic upon its original publication in 1949 and winner of the first International Fantasy Award, Earth Abides ranks with On the Beach and Riddley Walker as one of our most provocative and finely wrought post-apocalyptic works of literature.  Its impact is still fresh, its lessons timeless.

When a plague of unprecedented virulence sweeps the globe, the human race is all bu wiped out.  In the aftermath, as the great machine of civilization slowly, inexorably, breaks down, only a few shattered survivors remain to struggle against the slide into barbarism…or extinction.

This is the story of one such survivor, Isherwood “Ish” Williams, an intellectual loner who embraces the grim duty of bearing witness to what may be humanity’s final days.  But then he finds Em, a wise and courageous woman who coaxes his stunned heart back to life and teaches him to hope again.  Together, they will face unimaginable challenges as they sow the seeds of a new beginning.

Earth Abides is a novel I would describe as ‘haunting’ in that it forces you to think about the fact humanity may not always be around.  It also clings to your memory, even years after you first read it.  This passage about Captain Maclear’s rats haunts me even to this day.

Consider the case of Captain Maclear’s rat.  This interesting rodent inhabited Christmas Island, a small bit of tropical verdure some two hundred miles south of Java…

Yet such was the luxuriance of the tropical growth that the rats had not attained such numbers as to provide competition among members of the species.  The individual rats were extremely well-nourished, and even unduly fat.

In 1903 some new disease sprang up.  Because of their crowding and also probably because of the softened condition of the individuals, the rats proved universally susceptible, and soon were dying by thousands.  In spite of great numbers, in spite of an abundant supply of food, in spite of a very rapid breeding rate, the species is extinct.

Sound familiar to anyone?  Yeah, I thought so and it’s pretty scary because the scenario described by George R. Stewart really could happen one day.  And, like Maclear’s Rat, even our evolutionary advantages may not be enough to save us.

Enter Isherwood Williams, an intellectual who decides to stick around to see what happens to humanity when he discovers everyone he ever knew was dead.  Ish has a way of remaining emotionally distant that keeps him from going mad or making stupid sentimental decisions that would be detrimental to him.  Some people hate him for being so ruthless, but I found him to be empathetic (if not always sympathetic) and a very interesting character.

George R. Stewart has an amazing writing style and even though as Ish dies in the last part of the book things get a bit confusing, I had no trouble imagining the apocalyptic scenario he created.  The decay of buildings, the cropping up of bizarre religious beliefs, the lack of intellectual pursuits because survival is more important…all of this rings true and makes it a more enjoyable read.

I would highly recommend Earth Abides.  It’s one of the few classic novels that should be required reading in school.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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