Rereading Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

Cover of "Earth Abides"

When I first read Earth Abides by George R. Stewart more than 40 years ago, it wasn’t newly published, but it was new to me.

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 Along with physical disease, mental illness, archaic religious and outdated social structures are shed.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.

Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover editi...
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 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.

Earth Abides — George R. Stewart

Earth AbidesEarth Abides by George R. Stewart

I originally read this book more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t a new book even then, but it was new for me. Unlike so many other books I read and forgot, it stuck in my mind and I remember it with a clarity that is remarkable considering how many thousands of books I have read since. Earth Abides stays bright and shiny in my mind.

I have heard the book referred to as “the original disaster” story, but that misses the point. It isn’t a disaster story, original or otherwise. It is, as the title suggests, a book of renewal and hope. Although events are set in motion by a disaster, a plague that kills off most of Earth’s human population, that is only the trigger. Some few people are naturally immune and anyone who was ever bitten by a poisonous snake and survived also is immune.

These remnants of humanity eventually find each one another. They form groups that grow into tribes. They grow and thrive. Ultimately, they repopulate the earth, creating a new society that contains bits and pieces of what went before, but redesigned in a new and hopefully better way.

The book was re-released in a 60th anniversary edition a few years ago, including an audio version with an introduction by Connie Willis.

Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover editi...
Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover edition of Earth Abides. Cover illustration by H. Lawrence Hoffman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I cannot count the number of copies of this book I have owned. I love it so much I buy copies of it, give it to people I think will love the story. The books are given theoretically on loan, but never has one of them been returned, so I buy another copy. I should get a volume discount.

The book is a bit preachy, but no  more so than many other popular books. It doesn’t bother me. George Stewart is a lot less preachy than Anne Rice  and he has better points to make and moreover, I agree with him.

Things we accept without a second thought today were revolutionary 63 years ago. When the book was first published both interracial relationships and rejection of formal religion were generally not accepted when the book was published. Attitudes have changed — more some places than others — there’s still more than enough racism, religious fanaticism and hatred to go around.

I’ve seen comments about how out of date the technology is. In fact, it doesn’t matter, not one little bit.

Our current technology has moved on considerably but regardless of  how advanced it’s gotten, any technology is insupportable on a depopulated earth. It makes no difference what had or had not been invented. It would be useless in any case. You can’t drive cars without gasoline and you can’t keep the pumps working without electricity. You can’t use telephones when there is no service. Our satellites might continue to circle the earth, but without signals, how would it matter? No batteries, no power? It’s all over when the power is gone and that, as the book shows, is at best a few years for even the most basic infrastructure. After that, we are back to a pre-technical world. Not a pre-industrial world. Industry existed before electricity: wind, water, sun … and the Earth itself continue.

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 created a better society. 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 — by a man who knew him and has written his biography. The site contains pictures and other memorabilia. If you are a fan, this is a gift for us all.

This comment could not be transferred, so I have included it as part of the re-run of my original review.

Nice post about Earth Abides, and you found one of the easter eggs in Stewart’s book. But the photo (Note: I deleted the photo to which he is referring — MA)  is NOT of George R. Stewart. If you visit my blog —http://georgerstewart.wordpress.com — and follow the menu link at the top to the George R. Stewart web pages, you’ll see a photo of GRS. (I knew him, and have recently had a bio of GRS published.) You’re certainly right about Earth Abides — and you’re not the only one who feels that way. NASA’s Dr. Jim Burke, composer Philip Aaberg, Jimi Hendrix, Stephen King, Kim Stanley Robinson, Walt Disney — all were inspired by Stewart’s work or directly by EA. So thanks for the post. Cheers, DMS.