Sunday, February 20, 2011

Review - Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Short review: Humankind virtually vanishes from the face of the Earth. The Earth doesn't care. Sexism survives. The Earth doesn't care about that either.

After humans die
Ish is a passive loser
But still Earth abides

Full review: In 1951, four members of the British Science Fiction Convention got together and decided that there should be an award for science fiction and fantasy related books. That year they handed out the first genre related fiction award to George R. Stewart's post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides, a somewhat desolate and despairing book about the world after almost all of humanity disappears as a result of a world-wide plague. The story is told from the perspective of Isherwood Williams, referred to as "Ish" for much of the book, an anthropology graduate student who is one of the few to survive the ravages of the plague. To a certain extent, it is a little bit like The Stand without all of the supernatural elements (which makes sense, as it was supposedly one of the inspirations King drew upon when he wrote that book). The story is told in three parts each more distant in time from our world, with shorter connecting chapters bridging them.

The first section of the story, titled "World Without End", is the strongest part of the book. In the opening pages of the book Ish is bitten by a snake and falls ill. After he recovers, he discovers that during his delirium, humanity appears to have vanished from the face of the Earth. After establishing the basic outlines of the disaster that wiped out all of his fellow humans, Ish takes a car, a dog, and his hammer with a cracked handle and decides to explore the world looking for anyone else, although he is awfully selective about who he will spend time with given that there seem to be no more than a couple dozen people left alive in all of San Francisco. Because Ish is an anthropology graduate student, he spends a lot of time intellectualizing about humanity, and how the survivors will react to the death of so many millions, repeating the phrase "secondary kill" over and over again to describe people who can't face a world in which all of their family and friends have died and commit suicide, or take foolish risks and get killed, or simply set about drinking themselves to death. Ish, of course, suffers from none of these mental infirmities, and comments several times on how much nicer the world is without people.

Even this early in the book some improbabilities start piling up. One is expected to accept, for example, that even after the electrical grid fails, gas station pumps will continue to work. Ish also behaves fairly profligately, at one point killing a calf and its mother solely so he could cut out the calf's liver for dinner. (I was also left wondering, given that he had two entire dead cows to pick from, why he chose to eat the liver, and only the liver, as opposed to cutting himself a thick juicy steak). Over the course of his trip, which eventually leads him to a desolate New York City, Ish encounters a couple of people, including a black couple living in the rural South who seem to me like the people most likely to prosper in the post-human world, since they seem to actually know how to raise food for themselves. They make for a thematic contrast with the delusional couple Ish meets in New York who spend their time drinking martinis and playing cards, and who are certain to die as soon as the first snows arrive. Eventually Ish turns back, and returns to San Francisco, where as soon as Ish finds himself thinking that he needs some female companionship, an appropriate woman serendipitously shows up. Eventually Ish settles down with his new found partner, a woman named Em, setting the stage for the years to pass.

The second section, which leaps ahead twenty-two years after the death of the bulk of the human race is titled, naturally enough "The Year 22". It is in this middle section that the book starts to seriously fray at the seams. In an interstitial chapter between "World Without End" and this section, it is established that two other men and three other women come to live on the same suburban street where Ish and Em have taken up residence. The little band of people living on the outskirts of San Francisco take to calling themselves the "Tribe" and produce a fairly large band of children. Among the more implausible elements of this section is the idea that these survivors would continue to derive much of their sustenance from leftover canned goods. It is in this section that Ish's annoying passivity comes to the fore. Ish frets that the Tribe has not taken up agriculture or animal husbandry, but consoles himself with the thought that none of them know what they are doing in that regard to begin with, so they wouldn't have enough expertise to do it. But Ish makes a big deal in the book about finding the city public library and the Berkeley university library, and what a great source of knowledge they would be. One is left to wonder why he doesn't bother to educate himself on these sorts of topics given that they seem to be of fairly critical importance (especially given the implausibility of things like canned tomatoes still being edible twenty-two years after they were first canned - even canned food has an expiration date, let alone the fact that the cans would likely rust through in that time frame).

This passive refusal to actually do much of anything seems to be a pattern, since Ish says he thinks it is important that the offspring of the initial seven survivors be educated, but makes only the most halfhearted attempts to do so. Time and again Ish thinks of some element of civilization or technology that he considers fairly important to pass along, makes a halfhearted attempt to do so, and the first time any kind of obstacle to doing so crops up, just gives up. This even shows up when the story reveals that the younger generation had begun to invest Ish's hammer (and the entire older generation as mythically powerful "Americans") with supernatural significance, and Ish makes only the most perfunctory effort to dissuade this fetishization before giving in and allowing this sort of nonsense to take root despite his opposition to it. It seems that Stewart wanted to show how difficult it would be to continue civilization with such a diminished population, especially given the focus placed upon Ish considering which of the younger generation would follow in his footsteps as the intellectual leader (using that term loosely, given the fact that Ish does precious little actual effective leading), and the sad end result of that plot line. However, the way the difficulty in preserving civilization and learning is presented in the book doesn't really make it seem like this is inherently difficult, but is instead only difficult because Ish and the other survivors basically let it happen through their own foolishness, despite having all the resources necessary to prevent this outcome. In short, this element of the story doesn't ring true, but rather seems to be artificial, because Stewart had in mind a particular outcome, and wanted to force the story into that direction no matter how silly it made his characters appear to be.

It is also in this section that the fact that the book was written in 1949 really shows through, and really dates the book in a bad way. There is a level of casual sexism and class snobbery that, while not really shocking, is certainly noticeable. There is a little bit of racism too, but it is somewhat muted, showing up on when Em, Isherwood's post-apocalyptic wife, reveals in a fairly oblique reference that she is of mixed race descent, and Ish's response, though accepting that such things are of no consequence in the post-human world, reveals a level of fairly casual racism in itself. One thing that I suppose is heartening is that while the language of Em's revelation was probably clear when the book was made, the reference is pretty opaque now, and one could easily miss it, or simply not understand it today. Unfortunately, the casual sexism is not nearly as well masked by time. In fact, it is made much more apparent. For example, when Ish is trying to decide who will be the "intellectual" to follow in his footsteps and be the driving force that attempts to preserve culture and civilization, while he considers each of the other male members of the Tribe, he casually dismisses all of the women as a group by saying that they are all consumed by the concerns of motherhood and making homes for their men. This is an area where the class snobbery raises its head too, Ish dismisses George, the one blue collar member of the group, as simply being obviously too dimwitted to have anything important to contribute in the mental arena.

This section of the book also highlights the very 1940s morality that pervades the book. Despite pretensions of being very forward thinking (Ezra has two wives, and of course, Ish is married to a woman who is of mixed race ancestry), the arrival of the stranger Charlie and the plot that follows demonstrates that Stewart, and thus his characters, seems to have stepped right out of a bad high school health film. Charlie shows some fairly inappropriate sexual interest in the mentally childlike Evie, which Ish and the others regard as troubling, but what turns out to be Charlie's "serious" offense is that he admits that he has "Cupid's disease", or in other words, some form of venereal disease. This is such an crime that the Tribe immediately sentences Charlie to death. Apparently, in the post-apocalyptic world, having the clap is a hanging offense. This sequence, more troublingly, illustrates the Tribe's casual dismissal of another element of society - the idea of laws. At one point, when deliberating Charlie's fate, George suggests that punishing Charlie before he has actually committed a crime would be against the law. To which Em derisively responds "What law?", after which everyone concludes they can pretty much do anything they want to to Charlie. But no one stops and says "Hey, maybe we should think about having some rules to follow for our growing community". And the concept of having laws that people know about and are applied fairly is left to die because Em basically thinks the idea is silly.

The third section of the book "The Last American" is also the shortest. It is supposed to serve as more or less the pay off of the entire book, showing the changes that take place as Ish becomes old and the other "first generation" members of the Tribe die out until he is the last living link to the world before the great plague. At this point, Ish's passivity takes over as he sits and watches the world move on around him. The fetishization of Ish, as one of the mythic "Americans" and his hammer continues to take on larger significance, but even when invested with supernatural significance, Ish fails to seize the opportunity this status should provide and basically sits on his ass because it is easier than trying to direct events to keep some vestige of civilization alive. One thing that I find bizarre is that when he is asked questions in his capacity as a supernatural entity, and refuses to answer, the young men of the Tribe "pinch" him until he answers. Pinch? What grown man pinches someone to get their way? In this last section one can only come to the conclusion that the libraries that Ish so carefully made sure to locate and keep sacrosanct in the earlier sections will be useless in the new world, since no one will be able to read their contents. In the end, Ish hands over his supernatural power, beginning what one assumes is a new religion for a new world, leaving as his only legacy the introduction of the bow and arrow, and a fetishized hammer.

I think that a lot of the problems I have with the book stem from Stewart's apparent thematic decision to have a book that shows the disintegration of civilization, and have a single viewpoint character, meaning that this disintegration had to take place in the course of a single lifetime. And consequently, this means that the characters can't really be very proactive or accomplish much of anything other than root around in the ruins of the pre-collapse world and scavenge off of its carcass. As a result, this is a very frustrating book, as most of the troubles the characters end up having are more the result of their own stupidity than the depopulated world that they find themselves living in. Even still, this book remains a classic of science fiction - even if you've never read the book, if you've read or viewed any post-apocalyptic fiction written since its publication, you probably read a book that was influenced by it. The opening section, describing the empty world devoid of humanity is brilliant, and even though the later sections are made less effective by the passive indifference of the characters, they illustrate quite effectively how the world might adjust to the loss of human influence, and how little the world really needs us. Despite being a flawed work, it is a flawed work that is definitely worth reading.

1952 International Fantasy Winner: Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier

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  1. Great and very thoughtful review. Also, when considered that the book was written in 1949, it is still a awesome feat of projection

  2. Stewart's purpose in the book was to challenge the reader to think, so (I believe) included material which readers would question. Your fine review indicates that he succeeded in what he was trying to do.

    You may be interested in this blog:

  3. @eeleenlee: I'm not entirely sure what projection the book made. The characters all live in a world that for most of its length is essentially unchanged from the state of things in 1949, with the exception of the loss of people.

  4. @Ranger Don: I agree. Stewart was trying to provoke a contemporary reader into questioning his assumptions.