Unlike many other books I have read and forgotten, Earth Abides has stayed in my mind. I have returned to it again and again. I can recall it with remarkable clarity especially considering the hundreds of books I read every year, probably thousands since I first encountered Earth Abides.
Earth Abides is considered by many writers and readers of science fiction as a “foundation book” and is often cited as “the original disaster” story. A foundation book it is, but “original disaster story” entirely misses the point.
Earth Abides isn’t a disaster story, original or otherwise. It is a book of rebuilding, renewal and hope. The event that initiates the story is a disaster, a plague accidentally released from a laboratory that runs amok and kills off most of Earth’s human population. Some small percentage of earth’s population is naturally immune to the bug (as is true for all plagues) plus anyone who survived a rattlesnake bite has immunity.
The plague is the back story. The front story and theme of Earth Abides is the ways that humankind copes with the tragedy as scattered remnants of people gradually find each other. Individuals find others to form groups. Through marriage and the pressures of survival, groups become tribes. Most ailments of the old earth were eliminated by the plague. The vanished ailments are physical — the new generations are wonderfully healthy — and sociological. Archaic religious and social structures are shed by survivors who don’t remember what purpose they served or have any interest in preserving them. The new world has no room for bigotry, hatred or mental disease. It’s a small world, a new world with much to do. The strong and useful will survive, but the unfit cannot be allowed to reproduce. The world is too small to support those who cannot contribute.
Thus new civilizations thrive and increase. Ultimately, they repopulate the earth. The reborn world contains bits and pieces of what went before, but is redesigned in a new and presumably healthier way. The world is free of race hatred and religious prejudice, as well as most diseases.
The book was re-released in a 60th anniversary edition a few years ago, including an audio version with an introduction by Connie Willis.
I have owned dozens of copies of this book. I usually keep an extra copy to give it to people who haven’t read it.
The complaint that the book is a bit preachy is fair enough, but so are many science fiction and fantasy books, including everything Robert Heinlein wrote and everything written by Anne Rice. Anne Rice is so preachy that some of her books are the straight stuff: no plot, no story, just preaching. George R. Stewart had, in my opinion, better points to make and gets a free preaching pass from me. Most writers, especially in science fiction, have points to make and it won’t kill anyone to ponder them.
It’s also important to remember that the book was published in another time and place. Many things that are largely accepted without a second thought today were revolutionary 64 years ago. In some parts of the world and in this country too, they are still revolutionary. We have moved on … to a point.
When the book was first published interracial relationships and rejection of formal religion were not accepted or tolerated most places. Attitudes have changed though there’s still more than enough racism, religious fanaticism and hatred to go around.
I’ve seen criticisms pointing out how out of date the book’s technology is. It wouldn’t matter if the technology of the world gone missing had been spot on accurate. Gone is gone.
Regardless of how advanced it used to be, whatever it was became insupportable on a depopulated earth. You can’t drive cars without gasoline and you can’t keep the pumps working without electricity. You can’t use telephones or computers when there’s no service. Satellites would circle the earth, but their signals would be received by no living person, so how would it matter? No batteries and no power, and it’s all over when the power is gone. As the book makes clear, the amount of time before the automated system stop functioning when there’s no one to take care of them is a few years — maybe — for even the most basic infrastructure.
After that, the world goes back to a pre-technological world, though not a pre-industrial one. Industry existed before electricity. There has always been wind, water and sun. And books remain, knowledge exists waiting to be re-deployed. Earth abides.
The world ends, the world begins. Earth Abides. Ish and Emma are the “mother” and “father” of the new tribe. Ish, in Hebrew, means “man” and “Eema” means “mother” which I am sure is not coincidental. It’s a wonderful story that suggests the human race has the capacity to not only survive, but reinvent civilization and make a better world. If you haven’t read this book, read it. It’s available in print and on Audible with a fine narrator. I cannot recommend it too highly. Earth Abides is timeless. As is the Earth itself. I discovered today there is an entire site dedicated to George R. Stewart – The EARTH ABIDES Project . The site contains pictures and other memorabilia. Definitely check it out!
- Daily Prompt: Second Time Around (wordpress.com)
- Post Apocalyptic Book Reviews – Earth Abides, Shadow on the Hearth (jimmyjpackjr.wordpress.com)