Men go and come, but Earth Abides: Science fiction’s most poignant post-apocalyptic story

Gautham Shenoy July 29, 2016 7 min


“If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation… it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge in nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the death of millions of people.” – W.M. Stanley, in Chemical and Engineering News.

“When anything gets too numerous, it’s likely to get hit by some plague. As for man, there is little reason to think that he can in the long run escape the fate of other creatures, and if there is a biological law of flux and reflux, his situation is now a highly perilous one. During ten thousand years, his numbers have been on the upgrade in spite of wars, pestilences, and famines. This increase in population has become more and more rapid. Biologically, man has for too long a time been rolling an uninterrupted number of sevens.”

The situation that these two quotes describe seem so relevant to today, but were in fact written almost 70 years ago in a book that we’re going to look at in this week’s edition of New Worlds Weekly – Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.

classic cover

Earth Abides is a classic of the post-apocalyptic subgenre of science fiction, which concerns itself with the question, ‘What would happen if the world and civilization as we know it no longer existed?’ There are many ways in which this could happen – nuclear war, alien invasion, zombie outbreak or, as in the case of Earth Abides, a viral pandemic that just wipes out a vast majority of people, in just the first two pages of the book. But unlike other post-apocalyptic scenarios, Earth Abides takes a very realistic, practical, pragmatic – and many a times, poetic – approach to the aftermath of civilization’s demise.

For starters, no one mourns humanity. Not nature, not the earth, not the animals, birds or even the rats. To the contrary, all are better off without people. Oh wait! The book does tell us that there is someone, or rather something, that mourns the passing of humankind – the parasites, that depended only on human hosts.

Cities and their proud structures collapse. Wilderness takes over. Art is dead. Nothing new is created. Humanity’s footprints on the world are erased, one by one by one.

Earth Abides begins with a student, Isherwood Williams, or Ish as he calls himself, returning from a solo research trip, coming out from deep within the mountains, recovering from a snake bite, only to find that a virus has killed most of the world’s population. Naturally he goes in search of other survivors. The few people he finds he doesn’t like or thinks are incapable of surviving the winter or they’re just people unable to cope with the shock. It’s the same story as he goes on a cross-country trip to find other survivors along with whom he can rebuild ‘civilization’. Until he comes back home and finally finds a lady agreeable to him, Emma or Em, who finds him equally agreeable. Since concepts like ‘marriage’ no longer exist, they agree to consider themselves married and decide to do their bit to repopulate the earth and to stay alive. Over time, they are joined by a few other survivors and this marks the beginning of their small ‘tribe’.

Ish desires and tries earnestly to maintain civilization, to preserve the old ways. But as he soon finds out, rebuilding civilization is neither an easy task, nor are people interested. Civilization will not rebuild itself; only, inevitably, decay. In the meanwhile, as all of this is going on, we learn – in short yet frequent italicised sections – about the other interesting things happening to the world. The purebred dogs and horses that were pampered and cared for by their humans were the least able to survive. Larger animals, such as cows, begin to take down fences to gain access to the better grazing of the cultivated fields that are now giving way to weeds. Cities and their proud structures collapse. Wilderness takes over. Art is dead. Nothing new is created. Humanity’s footprints on the world are erased, one by one by one. Stewart’s attention to detail and his description of the changes brought about by the disappearance of people in this world are something to look forward to. I say look forward to, because even though I’ve read the book twice, I look forward to reading it again sometime in the future.

Earth Abides has been continuously in print since its publication in 1949. While most of the covers tend to depict an earth, or cities, bereft of people – as in the Random House first edition (left) – a few like the Corgi edition (right) show Ish the protagonist with his hammer, a tool that plays a significant role by itself, in the story.

As the book proceeds through its three main sections, we’re given a ringside view of the death of the old ways, of the decline and fall of human civilization. Bows and arrows are now the weapon of choice. No one in the first generation born after ‘the catastrophe’ is interested in reading or wants to learn. With each passing generation, the commonplace things become myths of a dim past. The children are more connected to the natural world and its rhythms than Ish and his generation will ever be.

Numbered years lose their meaning, instead they are referred to after one big event that happened in that year, like ‘The Year of the Elk’ or ‘The Year of the Grandchild’ and then ‘The First Good Year’, ‘The Second Good Year’ and so on. Superstition overtakes science. And all of these are not spoilers, trust me, for this is not even scratching the surface of the depths that Earth Abides holds in store for the fortunate reader who starts reading it for the first time.

If some elements feel familiar to you, or give you a sense of déjà vu, it is because Earth Abides has influenced many writers and many books, especially in the post-apocalyptic subgenre.

Many post-apocalyptic stories overdramatize, and end on a high – with the flame of humanity burning bright as the survivors heroically march bravely ahead, blazing a new trail, forging a new civilization. Earth Abides instead sacrifices drama for realism; slowly and lovingly carrying Ish and his tiny group into an uncertain future with all of its little victories, major decisions, the inevitable sorrow and heartbreak – showing us along the way all the kinds of problems they have to face, including rats and that of agriculture, for instance. How many of us know to cure meat? To fix a broken water pipe and restore supply? What do you do when law is a forgotten memory, yet a wicked stranger must be punished for taking advantage of a mentally-challenged girl that the small community was so protective of? What’s the value of education? The purpose of civilization? Of libraries? Of religion, if it has one?

For a science fiction book written in 1949 – the same year as George Orwell’s 1984 – Earth Abides has aged remarkably well, except for a few stray places like where Ish thinks DDT is good, but none that really gets in the way of the tale. In a few places you have to take things like canned food being edible after 20 years with a pinch of salt. If some elements feel familiar to you, or give you a sense of déjà vu, it is because Earth Abides has influenced many writers and many books, especially in the post-apocalyptic subgenre. Stephen King’s The Stand, for instance, was directly influenced by Earth Abides. And for all of this, this was the only science fiction novel George R. Stewart ever wrote.

masterworks edition

Another great thing about this book is that it is still in print, and available in a nice Science Fiction Masterworks edition, a copy of which can be yours for keeps! Just answer this (seemingly) simple question: “If a viral pandemic does actually wipe out (nearly) all of humankind, as a survivor, what would your first priority be to ensure civilization carries on?” Tell us your answer(s), stories or scenarios in the comments section below, tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD or leave a comment on the FactorDaily Facebook page, before 8th of August, 2016.

And before I sign off, last but not the least, the much-awaited announcement of who the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction goes to. And the person who gets his own copy of this great book for his brave new word ‘Cyberwear’ is Aniket Tamboli. You can read the full details of his entry and see what ‘Cyberwear’ means – in both its noun and verb forms – in the comments section of NWW 02: Brave New Words.

Congratulations Aniket! Do mail us your contact details and we’ll make sure your copy reaches you soon. Happy reading!
Live long and prosper!