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Earth Abides
by George R. Stewart
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Rating:
Reviewed by: John Walsh

A young man goes on a short field trip - he is a geographer and is bitten by a snake - by the time he recovers and returns home, nearly all of humanity has been killed in a mysterious plague. The man, Isherwood Williams or 'Ish' as he comes to be known, searches for clues as to what has happened and then travels across America to search for survivors. He meets a woman, older than him but clearly a strong survivor and they set up house together along with a handful of others back in his native California. Although people have all disappeared (and there is an absence of corpses, which I recall from Stephen King's The Stand, another post-apocalyptic tale, was one of the principal problems encountered - as indeed it is these days in The Walking Dead), the remnants of civilization remain and people can spend years living on food from tin cans and other useful items stored conveniently in shops and warehouses. Water and electricity supplies continue for some years but, unfortunately, the survivors, who call themselves The Tribe under Ish's leadership, has slipped into a someone torpid state given perhaps their need to recover from shock and the fact that life has become quite simple - there is no need to get up early in the morning, there is an almost unlimited supply of food and anything else that might be required (although chickens and pigs also disappear meaning beef becomes the staple protein) and the lack of humanity and their isolation has more or less eliminated any disease. Knowledge about how to influence the world rapidly disappears and the small daily routines occupy the Tribe members above all else. As well as most forms of cultural expression, politics and religion are also soon abandoned as needless in the new age. People discuss what they might do in the event of indecision but they more or less do what they want anyway - on only one occasion does the Tribe need to make a serious decision and to bind themselves together to implement it.

This is a mostly quiet tale - one of the things that Ish notices early on is how quiet nature has become without the vehicles and machines humanity uses to promote its interests. Without the distractions of radio or the cinema - the book was written in 1947 - Ish and his companions have a great deal of time to contemplate their lives, their family relationships and what they are going to do the next time. The results are, well, quiet: there is no crime among the Tribe and no marital infidelities, there are few events that would have been considered noteworthy prior to the plague. The slide away from civilization appears to be unavoidable, given the nature of the resources available to Ish (and given the contemporary social milieu) and his own inadequacies. He makes some efforts to change the course of his little society but these soon diminish in the busy but unhurried and ultimately fruitless daily lives. Earth Abides, as the title has it, but the people who have defined the nature of the earth for thousands of years have been reduced to a level below a critical mass necessary to maintain the existing level of civilization.

It is hard to imagine that this book was written after the Second World War, with all of its horrors and destruction, since this is a picture of society from a seemingly remote past. It is very localized in nature - a reader would not become aware that there is anything beyond America and the American way of life in the world. It is credible in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic society but there are other visions which are equally possible, especially when written from the perspective of the contemporary world, which is data-intensive and contains information embedded into almost every item and place. It is also possible to wonder whether more might have been done in challenging stereotypes of character which were prevalent then, especially in terms of gender relations. However, this remains a classic work of science fiction and I am glad to have had the chance of reading it as part of the excellent SF Masterworks series, all of the books in this series that I have read I can warmly recommend and this is certainly another.


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