Earth Abides is lauded as one of the most noteworthy post-apocalyptic novels ever written. It was originally published in 1949, and its author, George R. Stewart, was better known as a writer of nonfiction than fiction, but Earth Abides is easily his most recognizable work.
Ish Williams is a graduate student working on his thesis—“The Ecology of the Black Creek Area”—in the wilds of northern California when a virulent virus destroys humanity. When Ish returns from the wilderness he finds an empty world. There are no bodies littering the streets, no signs of struggle, nothing except the surreal stillness of empty towns, streets, businesses, and homes. Everything is gone, and Ish doesn’t understand what happened until he reads the bleak, desperate headlines of the final issue of a newspaper in an abandoned magazine shop.
Earth Abides is the story of Ish’s survival. He is a man of intellect—he mourns the passing of knowledge—and he can visualize the future not as an abstract idea, but as it very well may be. Ish chronicles the remnants of humanity as it forms itself into small tribes. The tribes survive from what the “old ones” left behind. Their food comes from cans. They raid sporting goods stores for firearms and ammunition, and miraculously the remnants survive and grow. Ish begins his journey as an observer, but quickly finds himself as a participant in the new world.
Earth Abides is one of the most troublesome novels I have read. It is troublesome because the writing—style, narrative, and plotting—drove me batty. In a matter of a few pages it would cycle from powerful and energetic to dull and overly analytical. The major reason for this wild swing was the frequent interruption of narrative with an omniscient spoiler every few pages. The spoiler acted as a chapter heading, but it, in very academic and technical style, detailed exactly what was going to happen over the next several pages.
It is also an unflattering portrayal of the terribleness of surviving civilization’s death. There is nothing romantic, or wholesome, or evil, as in many other popular post-apocalyptic stories, but rather it highlights the difficulty, the loneliness, and downright miserable aspects of survival. It reads realistically—the way I imagine it would be if nearly everyone died leaving only a few people holding the bag; suicides, drugs, alcohol, and insanity the flavor of the day.
Realism is the novel’s strength. Mr Stewart’s vision of desperation is vivid and consuming; early in the novel, when Ish returned to emptiness, he drives from town to town honking his horn, waiting for a response that never arrives. The loneliness and desperation is palpable.
Earth Abides is a roller coaster. I enjoyed yes, but I also disliked it. It is a novel filled with ideas, but its impact is lessened by an over-evaluation of those ideas.