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Unlike many other books I have read and forgotten, Earth Abides has stayed with me. I’ve returned to it many times in recent years, but there was a period of almost 30 years when I couldn’t find a copy of the book anywhere. Nonetheless, I could recall it with remarkable clarity. It was especially remarkable considering the thousands of books I read every year. That I could remember this one book — not to be too punny — spoke volumes. It turns out that I was not alone. Many people found the book unforgettable, including many writers. George Stewart’s masterpiece became the jumping off point for an entire genre.
Earth Abides is a “foundation book,” one of a handful of books that you must read if you are a science fiction fan. It is frequently cited as “the original disaster” story. A foundation book it most definitely is, but classing it as the “original disaster story” rather misses the point.
Earth Abides isn’t merely a disaster story or post apocalyptic science fiction. Above all it is a book of rebuilding, renewal and hope. The event that initiates the story is a disaster, a plague resulting from either a natural mutation or something escaped from a lab that runs amok. Whatever its origins, it kills off most of Earth’s human population. As has been true of plagues throughout history, a small percentage of the population is naturally immune. Additionally, anyone who survived a rattlesnake bite is immune.
The plague is the back story. The front story of Earth Abides is how humankind copes with the tragedy as scattered remnants of people slowly find one another, form groups and gradually create a new civilization. Through marriage and the pressures of survival, groups become tribes. Simultaneously, the earth itself revives and finds a new balance.
Most diseases of old earth are eliminated by depopulation. New generations are wonderfully healthy. Along with physical disease, mental illness, archaic religious and outdated social structures are shed. New human generations have no memory of institutionalized bias and prejudice and the color line becomes non-existent. There is much that needs doing in this new world, but there’s an infinite amount of time in which to do it.
Ultimately, earth will be repopulated. But gently … and hopefully, in peace. The reborn world will contain bits and pieces of what went before, but without its demons.
The book was re-released as a 60th anniversary edition in 2009, including an audio version with an introduction by Connie Willis.
The last time I read it was immediately after it was re-released. Four years has given me time to be surprised by the book all over again. Be surprised by how much Ish — the main character — changes over the years, how much he grows and matures. How his belief structure adapts to new realities, how much more open his mind becomes. It’s a rare transformation from a literary point of view. Few characters I’ve read have transformed as much as Ish does in Earth Abides.
Earth Abides was published in 1949. In some parts of the U.S. and other countries, the issues with which the book’s characters grapple are still very much alive. They shouldn’t be. We have moved on but only to a point.
The technology stands up surprisingly well because it’s essentially irrelevant. All technology disappears, so it doesn’t matter how advanced it used to be. When the power goes off, it’s over. The world goes back to pre-technological. It has wind, water and sun. Books remain, so knowledge exists, but in stasis, waiting to be rediscovered and deployed. Meanwhile, earth abides.
The world ends, the world begins. 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.
Earth Abides is timeless. As is the Earth. There’s an entire site dedicated to George R. Stewart – The EARTH ABIDES Project. Definitely check it out!
It’s available in every configuration including Kindle, Audible download, audiobook (CD and MP3), hardcover and paperback. There was time when it was difficult to find, but it seems to have found its way back. I have owned at least a dozen copies of Earth Abides and keep an extra copy tucked away to give to friends who haven’t read it yet. I’m glad.
It remains among my top five all time favorite science fiction novels and if you haven’t read it, there’s no time like the present. I have a spare copy, just in case.
Saudade is a Portuguese word that describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone who one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return.
My friends, who came as I did to live in Israel, shared the fear of receiving “the phone call” telling us a parent had passed away across an ocean and perhaps half a world.
We were haunted children. Each Passover we gathered. Elijah’s cup stood on the table. It was my mother’s cup and though she lived, she was also a ghost because she was so far away. I looked at my son. When I am old, I wondered, will he go far away to live in a different country?
I was 31 when left the U.S. and moved to Israel. I left in a ferocious need to be. Nothing would have stopped me. My mother never tried to stop me. She told me she admired me – admired me – for having the courage to leave.
I lay in bed the morning my mother died. Images tumbled through my head. In my mind’s eye, I saw the funeral I could not attend, my brother, older, sadder. And my sister. My mother was her protector. What would Ann do now? Two birds twitter as they build a nest on my Jerusalem window ledge…
I lived most of my adult life within half an hour’s drive from my mother and never gave it a second thought. We talked by phone, saw each other now and then for a bit of shopping and a chat. Such was life in suburban New York.
Living in Israel – being so far away – taught me about family We saw each other through a time-lapse sequence. Each visit, she was visibly older, changed. A call – “Your mother is in the hospital” – brought panic. Nothing could reassure me.
Another visit to Israel. It is the year after my mother’s surgery and she looks so tired. I can see the weariness, yes, but she is still Mother. I saw her as I had always seen her: strong, an elemental force in my world. A friend commented: “What a fragile little woman your mother is!” That stopped me short. I had never seen my mother as fragile. Or little. She was as she had always been … but maybe my eyes were faulty.
My mother was with me, then had to leave and another year passed.
It was 1983. She had come for Passover. I was overjoyed to have my family together. We would have three uninterrupted weeks. My mother looked wonderful. Her color was back. Just before the Seder, she tells me that she is dying.
“Dying?” I was inane in my shock. “But you look so well.”
She was not well. She had cancer. It had spread to her lungs and stomach. She said she could feel herself sliding away. “I don’t want to lose you,” I cried. If I cry, Mother will fix it, it will be okay.
“I don’t want to lose me either,” she said, and laughed.
“How can you laugh?” I said.
“What else is there to do?” she replied.
Fears and prayers and hopes. Relentlessly, she told me what I need to know about the will,my brother and sister. I am the first to be told.
We took a two-day trip to the Galilee. The wildflowers were blooming. They were scarlet and blue, white and pink, yellow and purple. The Galil was ablaze and we saw it together. I remember. The Hermon, still crowned with snow. The Kinneret, mist-covered.
My mother always talked to me. I was little, very little. I sat next to her while she ironed and she talked about life, her thoughts, her dreams. Was she lonely? Did she miss her own mother who had passed away?
The final summer of her life, I went to the United States to be with her. She still looked well. How could she be so ill? Yet the signs were there. Her will sustained her. She wanted me to remember the Mother I knew, and not as she would be in weeks to follow.
She let me take care of her, and that spoke volumes. We talked, talked, talked. I tried to tell her all the things I’d never gotten around to saying, never found the right words.
I just let the words fall out. I wanted her to know that all the little hurts … they were nothing. Forgive me Mother … I forgive you, too.
I am my mother. I am the cycle, the pattern. I sit by a pool and watch my granddaughter play in the water, and I am my mother, and I am in the pool. I am the one, mother who is and will be.
My mother gave me a diamond that was her mother’s and perhaps, though no one can remember so far back, her grandmother’s. It was the one thing that had been passed down the generations. All else was lost, long ago, left behind in another old … older … country.
I have become the woman my mother raised me to be. As she molded me, I am – for good and ill. I am my mother’s daughter.
- Rarasaur: Prompts for the Promptless – Episode 10 – Saudade (rarasaur.wordpress.com)
A friend asked me why I do this, why I blog. So I asked her why she plays golf.
We do what we do because we love it, need to do it, or both. Writing is like breathing. If I don’t write, I suffocate. My friend needs to compete, to be active. To play golf or she will suffocate.
I can’t begin to count the number of people who have told me they want to be writers, but don’t know how to start. They want me to tell them how. Because they asked the question, I’m reasonably sure they will never be writers. If you are a writer, you write. No one has to tell you how or when. You will write and you will keep writing because it is not what you do, it is what you are. It is as much a part of you as your nose or stomach.
I started writing as soon as I learned to read, which was about 45 minutes after someone handed me a book. It was as if a switch had been thrown in some circuit in my brain. Words felt right. Putting words on paper was exactly the same as speaking, but took longer. I didn’t mind the extra time because I could go back and fix written words. Being able to change my words and keep changing them until they said exactly what I wanted them to say was the grail.
I was awkward socially and my verbal skills were not well suited to my age and stage in life. I was not good at sports and no one wanted me on her team. In retrospect, I can understand why. But when I was a kid, it hurt. Games and other social activities let you become popular, make friends, and do those other things that matter to youngsters. I couldn’t do the regular stuff … but I could write and I could read and that gave me wings. I might be a klutz, but words let me build my own worlds.
I was consuming adult literature when I was so little that my mother had to run block with the librarian to make sure I was allowed to read whatever I wanted. I had to be told to stop reading so I would eat, sleep, or go outside. If I was writing, nothing could stop me. Some things never change.
If you are going to be a writer, you know it. Practice will make you a better writer, can help you understand how to build a plot and produce books that publishers will buy, but writing itself is a gift. If you have it, you know it.
Writers have words waiting to be written, lining up for the opportunity to get put on paper or into the computer. It may take quite a while for you to find what your special area will be, fact or fiction. However it sorts out, you will write, professionally or as a private passion.
There are many gifts. Talent comes in an endless number of flavors. If you have the soul of a musician, you’ll find a way to make music. The same with painting, photography, drawing, running, hitting a baseball or throwing one so that it just skims that outer corner of the plate at 96 miles per hour. Mathematics, engineering, architecture … creativity and talent are as varied as the people who use it.
Gifts are given to us. It’s up to us to use our gifts as best we can. Not everyone is gifted, Plenty of people would give anything for gifts that you may take for granted. What is easy for you may be impossible for most people.
So my advice to all hopeful writers is simple. Write.
Don’t talk about it. Do it. Write a lot, as often as you can, even if most of it is awful and you never show it to anyone. Sooner or later, you’ll find your way to where you should be. If you don’t write, it is your loss, but it may also be the world’s loss. You will never know how good you can be if you don’t try.
This blog is my way, in retirement, to find an outlet for the millions of words stuffed in my head, seething restlessly through my brain. Blogging is freedom in every sense. I have no deadlines to meet other than those I set myself. No editor is looking over my shoulder, I can write about anything and I have no word count to meet.
I hate golf. I can’t figure out why anyone would want to walk or ride around an enormous lawn hitting a little white ball. I can’t think of anything more boring … but I know a lot of golfers and they live for it. The rest of the week is just a pause between tee times.
So, if you don’t get why I write, that’s okay. You don’t have to get it. That I get it and can do it and other people actually read it … that’s enough for me. You do your thing, I’ll do mine. If I believe in anything, I believe with all my heart that we should all be what we were meant to be because that is the only route to any lasting happiness.
Annabelle was a doll made by Madame Alexander. She was in production for one year only — 1952 — the year I turned five. My mother loved dolls, but she had grown up poor. She had only had one doll in her entire life, a china-headed doll she got from her mother. That was a […]
You’ve being exiled to a private island, and your captors will only supply you with five foods. What do you pick?
On my little island there’s a cottage.
I have a tiny kitchen, but well-organized for its size. I have some good black iron pots and pans, sturdy bright dishes in the cupboard. A small ice box keeps a few things cool if the weather is sultry and I get at least some electricity, perhaps from a small generator. I can only bring five foods. Well, I’m going to hope that the drinks are separately counted so I can can put the coffee and tea on different list, along with the sports drinks I need to keep from dying of a serious electrolyte imbalance. Hard to do the island thing when you have very specific, rigid dietary requirements. Diabetes is not island friendly. So I’m just counting on drug deliveries along with food stuffs! I wouldn’t last long otherwise, though if I had enough books to read, I’d go out smiling.
Since this is not a desert island, if the soil is at all fertile, there may be many ways to supplement a limited diet and the sea contains much that is good to eat, including kelp and other seaweed. Maybe there will be some coconuts or mangos to be found. A little fruit would be awfully welcome! I’d better also have a goodly stock of vitamins and minerals too! Wouldn’t want to get scurvy or something.
- First, protein. I love seafood, so if I have to pick just one, salmon it is, but if I can get seafood as a category … I’ll be happily stranded. Seafood has the highest amounts of all the good stuff to keep ones body and soul together.
- Next, a calcium source. Cheese it will be! Pass the Jarlsberg please! If I can get cheese as a category, just bring them on, love them all, but if it has to be just one, I’ll go with a full flavor Jarlsberg.
- Need veggies!! Okay, perhaps I’m cheating a wee bit. All veggies are a single food for my purposes: tomatoes, onions, peppers, mushrooms, spinach, collards … the things that turn just food into meals.
- For the high carbohydrate choice: Potatoes. You can bake them, boil them, mash them. Serve them fried, grated and made into a loaf. Serve them with fried onions and make them into pancakes. My ancestors more or less lived on potatoes, so I gotta have item.
- Bread. There’s a reason “breaking bread” is synonymous with eating a meal with others. Bread goes with everything — cheese, gravy, tomatoes and lettuce. Bread is there with all the meals. Dry it out for crumbs and if I have some spare, maybe I can lure some egg-laying birds to my little camp.
No sweets, no junk food. But I can live on these foods and remain healthy.
I’m assuming that condiments and spices come “free.” Sugar, salt (especially salt!), garlic, basil, cumin, ginger, peppermint. I shall have an herb garden. No one said I can’t grow a few things, right?
I wonder what I’ll do for cooking oil? Any coconuts on the island?
Every bit of space not otherwise occupied with a bed, a few comfy chairs, a table and a fireplace will have to be filled with books … although if I have access to the internet and can bring a Kindle, I will be in Heaven. I do hope the water is warm enough for swimming and the soil rich enough for growing. I might really like that island. Guest room anyone?
How long were we apart? How long. An eternity? Or so it seems. Sometimes it feels like a strange dream I had as it fades in memory and so few people remember the places we lived or the language we spoke.
From the end of 1978 until August, 1987, I lived in Jerusalem, Israel. It is where I wanted to be and I was there by my own choice. I had wanted travel. I didn’t want to only travel. I wasn’t looking for a long vacation. I wanted to become part of another culture, another world, as different I could manage from the world I knew where I felt I was being swallowed by blandness.
Never did I have great yearnings for fame and fortune, though I wouldn’t have turned either away had they come knocking on my virtual door. But there are those of us who need to not only dream of other places, but experience them directly and apparently, I am one of them. My friends warned me I would suffer from culture shock. “Yes!” I said. I wanted culture shock. I wanted to be smacked in the face by a different lifestyle.
“You’ll be poor.”
My mother stepped in. “Marilyn’s never cared about things very much … she’ll be fine.” I didn’t know she knew that about me.
My friends sang three choruses of “What about me?” and I said “Buy a ticket. Visit.” Only Garry and one other friend … and my ex-husband (yes, we stayed friends until he died in 1993) took me up on the offer.
Garry, now my husband for 22 years (heading to 23) took me to the Four Seasons in New York and told me he’d really miss me and he would write. In all the years since we’ve been married, I’ve never seen him write a letter to anyone, but he wrote me twice a week, sometimes more, for 9 years. Those letters became a lifeline. I used to call them my fan letters, but when everything seemed to be falling apart around my ears and the life I’d built shattered, there was Garry. No surprise that we hooked up as soon as I got back and were married a few months after my divorce came through. Life take its own time.
And then there was Cherrie, my friend. When I said I was leaving, she said she was too. If I was going to quit Doubleday, she wasn’t going to quit too. We have this parallel life thing going. She wanted Hawaii, wound up in Austin. We completely lost track of each other for all the years I was away.
Now, we get to the good parts of the story. When I came back from Israel, I had nothing. A suitcase full of ratty tee shirts … a couple of hundred dollars … and my résumé. It was 1987 and the economy was beginning to move, especially in the Boston area where — coincidentally — Garry lived. Meanwhile, though, I got a job working for Grumman in Bethpage where among other strange and wonderful top-secret and not so secret jobs, I got to work with a bunch of NASA scientists on the design of the satellite catcher. We concluded that an effective satellite catcher had to have no fewer than 3 arms. Ignoring all recommendation, the U.S. government went cheap and made a catcher with 2 arms. It didn’t work. Mainly, as we had said, it wouldn’t catch satellites that were not rotating along a single axis. So, proving why humans have risen to the top of the food chain, our astronauts reached out and grabbed the spinning satellites with their dextrous hands and convenient opposable thumbs and easily caught them. Everything is weightless in space. We didn’t need a machine at all. Oops.
I also discovered we are hunting for anti-matter. Here’s a quoted interchange between Marilyn the Blogger in her incarnation as atomic editor anda highly place NASA physicist:
Me: “I thought anti-matter was a science fiction thing.”
He: “Oh, no, it’s very real. We want it.”
Me: “And you are sending probes to the ends of the universe to try to collect it?” (Unspoken: “Isn’t that a little bit dangerous? Like, to the world which you might eradicate?”)
He: “Yes. We have several probes seeking it and hopefully they will be able to collect some and bring it back.”
This ranks high in the weird conversations of my lifetime department.
Meanwhile, I had met a couple of people at Grumman and one of them published his own jazz newsletter, telling people what groups were playing where on the Island. He asked me to write some stuff for it. I said “How about an astrology column?” I actually can do astrology, though I don’t anymore for a whole bunch of reasons, but astrology columns are so totally bogus that it’s effectively straight fiction-writing, but people actually believe you (how cool is that?).
Ed, the guy with the newsletter, left them in pile free in the lobbies of buildings, local delis, and so on. And one day, my friend Cherrie who had returned from Austin and was living with her Mom while I was temporarily abiding in my ex-husband‘s guest room, was walking through the lobby of the building in which she worked and she saw there “The Jazz Ragg” and picked up a couple of copies.
There was a column by Marilyn Tripp. She read it and she said “That has GOT to be Marilyn, whatever her last name is now.” She knew my writing (we had worked together, after all), so she called my ex-husband and it turned out we were living a couple of blocks apart. Yay team. We have never been parted by more than a couple of hundred miles since … and after the Atlantic Ocean, that’s nothing.
As for Garry, we got together, married, bought a house, had our lives fall apart, put our lives back together and now live in the middle of nowhere in an oak woods with many dogs, my son and his family, way more bills than money to pay them, and a legion of aches and pains. In compensation, we also have a really huge television and many computers — 6 on this level and 5 or 6 more downstairs. It’s compensation for destitution.
So although we were apart,Garry and Cherrie and me, we found each other and are busy getting old together. How strange and wonderful to get old with the same people with whom you were first young.