Innumerable the post-apocalyptic settings haunting speculative fiction are. Hand in hand with dystopia, the genre’s writers render the world as we know it in ever bleaker hues of civilization’s collapse. From the cheapness of carnivorous plants to the integrity of gender, there are myriad perspectives on humanity’s chances and method of survival should the ‘big one’ ever happen. But among the first, and as a result more influential, is George Stewart’s 1949 Earth Abides. Later re-visioned by Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Cormac McCarthy, and others in more realistic tones, Stewart’s novel nevertheless remains a classic in the field, if not for one reason only: its ideological quandary.
Earth Abides is the story of Isherwood Williams, otherwise known as Ish. Lost in the mountains after being bitten by a rattlesnake, he returns to the comforts of civilization only to find that it is gone. Everywhere a ghost town, through old newspaper headlines he learns that an epidemic has swept the globe, killing 99% of the people. Getting in his car and going for a cross-country drive, he finds a few other humans still alive. But as most have an agenda different than his own, he decides to return to his parents’ home in San Francisco to start a new life. Though the occasional survivor turns up on his doorstep, meeting a woman on the other side of the city turns Ish’s life around. Named Emma, the two fall in love and start rebuilding society one brick at a time. Trouble is, society may not be able to re-built.
An uncomplicated read, Ish’s story plays out in simplistic fashion. Today’s “gritty” genre work only a glint in father post-apocalypse’s eye, Ish’s life is described with few details that render his world palpably post-apocalyptic. This is not to say every person need be a blood-slavering maniac or that vivid descriptions nuclear fallout debris equals good literature, only that the hurdles Ish must leap are few and small between given the drastic change civilization has undergone. Save a couple of people who take advantage of his hospitality, a few wild dogs, and a short but swift invasion of rats, Ish is essentially free to live like a duke in the new world order. This is rather frustrating because, in the early going Stewart directly criticizes The Swiss Family Robinson, writing: "As for the Robinsons, he felt that the ship remained for the family an infinite grab-bag from which at any time they might take exactly what they wanted." Yet, every comfort in Ish’s life is taken care of by the ‘ship’ of San Francisco. He lacks for nothing save a mass of people beyond his door. In his day-to-day existence, he never has to worry about food, water, or heat. In fact, for twenty years (!) Ish and the family and community which develop around him live off of canned foods and build fires using an endless supply matches, meaning life after the epidemic is not wildly different from their previous life. The overall result is a post-apocalyptic setting that never fully convinces.
And the critique doesn’t end there. The dialogue of Earth Abides like 1950s American sitcoms, Ish, Emma, and their children’s’ conversations and actions are at a distance from reality—a distance that requires effort on the reader’s part to overcome. David Pringle says the novel is “Written with great conviction and emotional intensity”, yet it’s not clear how. Certainly Stewart had an agenda for his “convictions”, but character thought, action, and conversation—typical purveyors of emotional content—are dry or parlayed in less than affecting terms. There are only two scenes which truly have a sense of conflict or tension that might give some indication the human spirit was active to the point of passion. With most parts only barely mimetic, and others obviously symbolic, it’s difficult to get a consistent handle on the story, much to the detriment of reader resonance.
It is in theme that Earth Abides redeems itself. Stewart taking his sweet time getting to the point, when he does a small but interesting variety of topics and ideas come rushing out. Not a narrative of survival or heroism, Stewart is interested in what would happen were the mass knowledge needed to operate technology (and the science behind the scenes constantly developing said technology) to disappear. Ish, Emma, and the others can only live so long on canned food, and then what happens? Who will fix the well pump or refrigerator when it breaks? What will generate the electricity for each? But not merely commentary on science, Stewart is also interested in the long-term human reaction. How will history (our current lifestyle) come to be perceived? What beliefs would evolve in such a scenario? How would communities handle law and order when no formal institution exists? By asking and providing answers to these questions in thought-provoking (albeit contrived) style, the novel is able to transcend the years—particularly given the fatalism existing between the title and denouement.
In the end, Earth Abides is a post-apocalyptic novel that bears little resemblance to modern offerings in the sub-genre. Stewart’s focus ideological rather than sensational, those looking for the next I Am Legend, The Road, or The Stand will have to go elsewhere. With an overriding concern for the human condition, the details of setting and actualities of post-apocalyptic life take a backseat. The opening half of the novel thus contains a great deal of padding, and will require some patience, but once Stewart settles into a new state of society, the big questions begin to take shape. (Interestingly, Leigh Brackett would write a story two years later with a very similar premise, The Long Tomorrow, but which approaches technological development from the opposite side.)