Review of Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Published on 2021-10-11 by John Collins.

"Earth Abides" is a post-apocalyptic book that was written by George R. Stewart, and was published in 1949. I read this book recently for the first time, and the following opening paragraph really resonated with me:

If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people.

W. M. Stanley, in Chemical and Engineering News, Dec. 22, 1947.

Given what has happened with the Covid-19 pandemic, this seems both prescient and topical.

The book follows Isherwood "Ish" Williams, who was alone in the wilderness when an airborne disease wipes out the vast majority of humanity. Ish is bitten by a rattle snack, and endures a painful recovery from that injury alone in a remote cabin. When he returns to town, he finds the aftermath of the pandemic, a world where humanity are no longer the dominant species, and all of the conveniences of modern living gradually fall into permanent disrepair.

Over time, Ish finds companionship and ultimately a small "tribe" forms around him, in the suburbs of San Francisco where Ish grew up as a child. Ish is a well-read man, but the other members of his tribe lose interest in reading, writing, and even maintaining modern conveniences such as cars, fridges, or even electricity or running water. Ish tries to maintain their interest by running a school for the children of the tribe, but ultimately realizes that they are not only becoming more ignorant, but tribal and superstitious. He becomes increasingly uncomfortable with this, especially when they start to treat him (and his simple hammer!) with superstitious reverence.

It is a brilliant book. It shows how easy it would be for humanity to return to another dark age, in just a few short generations. It reminds me a lot of "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller Junior in this regard, however "Earth Abides" is a much more personal account. We grow old with Ish. We share his pain and disappointments, right up until the end.

I will note that the second half of this book is a difficult read, not because of anything graphically disturbing, but it is just a bit depressing. The people in the tribe are not violent, they are just ignorant and in the end, they are willing to live off tinned food until it runs out, and then revert to hunting with bows and arrows.

We share Ish's bitter disappointment in his fellow humans, and as readers we are disappointed in Ish's shortcomings. George R. Stewart was such an astute observer of humanity, and his descriptions of the decline of human infrastructure and the encroachment of nature is delivered with such clarity, you feel like you too are living through it.

The copy I have is the Easton Press edition in the attached photograph. It is out-of-print, but is available on eBay periodically.