I don’t know how many copies of “Earth Abides” I have owned or how many times I’ve read it. I first read it when I was a teenager and I’ve been rereading it regularly ever since. I used to give away copies to people who hadn’t read it yet and eventually, kept extra copies, just in case.
So I bought another copy.
A couple of years ago, I bought the audiobook which has a great introduction by Connie Willis. Since I can’t give that one away, I still have a few paperbacks waiting for whoever becomes the next person I meet who hasn’t read it. Yet. Or who need to read it again.
Periodically, I need to reread this book. It gives me hope and frankly, I’ve been very weak in the hope department recently. This time, Garry and I listened to the Audiobook together. Not surprisingly, he liked this.
Earth Abides speaks of today. Ironically, of all the science fiction books I’ve read through many years, this one has become increasingly relevant. I wish it had not.
According to Google, both the 70th and hundredth anniversaries are honored with platinum gifts. Since Earth Abides is closing in on the 70th anniversary of publication, George R. Stewart’s epic work has achieved platinum.
The novel was published on October 7, 1949. It immediately caught the attention of reviewers for its well-written, epic tale of humans living in a world they no longer dominate. One later reviewer went so far as to call it “a second work of Genesis.” With its title from Ecclesiastes and the old testament rhythm of its language, it is almost biblical in its feeling. Never dull, it is a book that sings.
Stewart later insisted he didn’t intend it to be a religious work. But even he admitted that there was “a certain quality there.” The language was one thing. Stewart taught himself Hebrew before he wrote the book. He wanted to translate portions of the Bible into more modern English. He was surely influenced by the style of ancient Hebrew.
The book has had an enormous influence on later works. Stephen King based The Stand on Earth Abides, Grammy-nominated composer Philip Aaberg wrote “Earth Abides,” Jimi Hendrix was inspired to write “Third Rock From the Sun” from the novel (his favorite book). Other authors and scientists honor Stewart’s works. It is published in either 20 or 27 languages, depending on who you ask. There is some talk of producing a film version of the novel, but I don’t think it will happen and if it did, I’m afraid it would be awful. I don’t see it translating well to the silver screen … or even the small one.
It might make a good mini-series …. if Ken Burns directed it.
It was also the first winner of the “fantasy novel” award. It generated a whole genre of post-apocalyptic writing and another entire generation of disaster books — and sadly, movies. Connie Willis, who reads the introduction says it hugely influenced her work on many levels.
The best essay about the novel was written by James Sallis and published in The Boston Globe. Like Stewart, Sallis realizes the importance of integrity and beauty in his work, and it’s reflected in his essay. Sallis is a distinguished novelist and poet, whose noir novella Drive was filmed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
The novel has never been out of print, no thanks to its original publisher. Random House decided to pull the novel in the early 1970s. Fortunately, Stewart and small fine press publisher Alan Ligda quickly got together and brought out a beautiful copy from Ligda’s Hermes Press.
The Hermes edition sold well. Random House quickly realized they’d made a mistake and bought the rights back.
Thanks to Alan Ligda, Earth Abides has been in print for seventy years come next October. He is a hero of the novel. Sadly, he died young, and won’t be able to help celebrate the book’s Platinum Anniversary. So please take a minute (or more) to say a silent thanks to Alan Ligda while you celebrate the novel.
Read the novel again. You’ll have to do a number of readings to catch up with Steve Williams, the Pilgrim, who doesn’t know how many dozens of times he’s read it. Despite the post-apocalyptic story, it’s an optimistic book. The ultimate disaster is overcome and the world that arises is a better one than that which perished. As you read, reflect on Stewart’s role in raising our consciousness of the ecosystem.
His wildly popular ecological novels, Storm, Fire, and Earth Abides, and his less-widely read “post-modernist” ecological novel, Sheep Rock, have shaped our thinking. Like most great creative works of thought, they have more power than all the armies in existence. That pen (or, in Stewart’s case, pencil) is mightier than the sword.
By the way – if you want to buy a signed first edition, Morley’s Books in Carson City just happens to have one. It comes with a custom box to protect the classic. Only $1600 – about half the price of another on offer at ABE.
EARTH STILL ABIDES – Marilyn Armstrong
When I first read Earth Abides by George R. Stewart more than 50 years ago, it wasn’t newly published, but it was new to me.
Unlike so many other books I have read and forgotten, Earth Abides stuck with me. I’ve returned to it many times in recent years, but there was a period when I couldn’t find a copy of the book anywhere.
Nonetheless, I could recall it with remarkable clarity. This is especially remarkable considering the thousands of books I read every year. That I could remember this single book 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.
You might think the technology in the story is going to be old and silly. Except, everything fails immediately when people are gone. It doesn’t matter what you used to have. Without electricity, it’s trash.
It turns out, whatever super high tech stuff you have in your tech-pile of devices if you don’t have power, you have nothing. It’s rubble.
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 create a new world. Through marriage and the pressures of survival, groups become tribes. Simultaneously, the earth itself revives and finds balance.
Animals return. Old animals and new animals. Dogs and cats remain and the only absolutely lost creature turns out to be the human louse.
Most diseases of the old earth are eliminated by depopulation. New generations are healthy. Along with physical disease, mental illness, archaic religion, outdated social structures, and cultural norms are discarded or slip away. New human generations have no memory of institutionalized bias and prejudice. The color line becomes extinct.
There is much that needs doing in this brand new world, but there’s an infinite amount of future in which to do it. The earth will be repopulated. Gently and peacefully. The reborn world will contain bits and pieces of what went before but lack its former demons.
Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover edition of Earth Abides. Cover illustration by H. Lawrence Hoffman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The last time I read it was just following its re-release. Now, we are reading it again. Eight years has given me time to be surprised by the book again. Surprised by how much Ish — the main character — changes over the years. How enormously his belief structure adapts to new realities. How much of the detritus of the previous world he eventually allows to disappear and how 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.
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 returns to pre-technology. 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, a reborn world begins. Earth Abides is timeless. As is the Earth.
There’s an entire site dedicated to George R. Stewart — The EARTH ABIDES Project. Please check it out!
It’s available for Kindle, Audible download, audiobook, hardcover, and paperback and I have a spare copy, just in case you need one.
Notes on Hebrew and its use in Earth Abides
Many people (including Connie Willis) think the name “Ish” is related to some ancient native American with a similar name or some mythical creature from some legend. However, if you read the original commentary from the Stewart home blog, you’ll realize as Stewart was writing this book, he was studying Hebrew. He wanted to retranslate the bible. Yes, he WAS an academic — the best kind.
His two primary founders were a man and a woman, called “ISH“ — in Hebrew pronounced “eesh,” meaning man and “EMMA.” in Hebrew pronounced “eema.” It means mother.
Ish and Emma are the founding parents of the world to come. Their names are not an obscure reference to other books or myths. They are standard Hebrew and anyone who speaks the language — even a little bit — will get it.