Review: George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (1949)

(Original printing by Random House in 1949)

One might ask, once you’re done Googling the given title, why the HELL would we be interested in a book published 72 years ago. That was before the Red Scare of the 1950s, before fears of nuclear war overtook all future versions of Armageddon. There is wisdom in old works, perhaps more than can be found in contemporary books. I found for myself this is a more timely text than was seemingly possible.

The back cover of the 1976 edition I read describes this as ‘a novel about a tomorrow that could happen today’. After the events of 2020 it seems very close to home. Our protagonist, Isherwood Williams, spends some time in a cabin in the woods recovering from a rattlesnake bite. He comes back to a city that appears deserted. Scattered newspapers, what’s left of them, tell of a ‘new and unknown disease of unparalleled rapidity of speed, and fatality’. Unlike in 2020, in the novel there was a concerted and competent government response, although this pathogen still wiped out the better part of the population of the late great United States.

I saw a lot of myself in Ish. He was well read, and probably more mechanically inclined than I. Basically he’s a good person trying to make sense of an impossible situation. At first he was all right with solitude, he could do without loads of people and their problems for a while. Peace and quiet were nice, and he was free to do what he wanted. Some inhibitions had to be broken, such as when Ish had to start breaking into stores to get canned goods, just for his own needs, now without fear of prosecution. Given that all means of mass production were essentially gone, canned goods were all that city people had to live on.

But no one can live alone forever. That’s how Ish was adopted first by a homeless dog, Princess, which lead him to Em, his future wife and the woman who would become this novel’s Mother of the community they gather together in an old California suburb. . As the first, original Mother, Em becomes the heart of what they call the Tribe, probably the most intuitive person and the one everyone defers to in matters.

This community Ish gathers, this Tribe, is comfortable, too much so perhaps. Even when a crisis arrives, when the reservoirs have dried up and no more water is to be had from their taps, it is very hard to stir the people to make an effort even to dig a well.

I can see this–I believe it. For a novel written seven decades ago, it has a clarity and insight. These are average people with average goals, without much ambition to rebuild civilization as they knew it. Ish’s efforts to educate the children of their small Tribe come to no avail, until he settles on more basic–and potentially fun skills, such as bows and arrows. And of course there is the Hammer, which Ish has carried with him from the beginning. This becomes an unconscious symbol of power, a tool as well as a faithful companion that Ish has to pass on in the end.

I would highly recommend Earth Abides. There is more truth, more humanity there than a lot of the propaganda we’ve indulged in for the past several years.

(The 1976 Fawcett Crest edition)

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