Audible.com recently recorded what I think is the first ever audio version of George R. Stewart’s classic novel, Earth Abides, so I decided to give it another read. I’ve read it before of course, but it’s probably been almost 20 years since the last time, so I was excited to get into it again.
Written in 1949, Earth Abides, is probably the earliest “modern” example of a pandemic post-apocalyptic novel. It follows Isherwood Williams, known as just Ish, for a period of about 50 or 60 years, starting after The Great Disaster, an unknown plague that wipes out all but just a few pockets of survivors. We see The Tribe, as they call themselves, started from just seven survivors, as it develops into a group of over a hundred people in the hills of San Francisco.
There are hundreds of reviews of the book around the web, so I’ll just stick with a few thoughts. It’ definitely a good book (it won several awards and is credited by Stephen King as an inspiration for The Stand), and I really enjoyed it myself, but I can see how if you’re not a super-fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, you might think it’s a little slow in places. The first third or so feels like watching Tom Hanks in Cast Away; there’s basically zero dialog as Ish travels around the country looking for other survivors. Even when a few of them gather to start a community, the writing style is mostly descriptive, without a lot of talk.
But the material that’s covered is perfect for anyone who wonders about how civilization would fare after an apocalypse. Would the children born into the new world be curious about the old one? Would they care to learn to read or to carry on the knowledge of the “Old Ones”? Would they view the Old Ones as people like themselves, or would they look on them as gods who created all the indecipherable wonders they see around them?
Ish struggles with the answers to these kinds of questions as he tries to preserve and pass on enough knowledge to keep some semblance of civilization, if not simply his people, alive. They face actual dangers, such as wanderers bearing disease, but the greatest threat to the future of The Tribe is their apathy. The few from Before are comfortable enough in their current existence to not want to bother reclaiming the comforts of the old world, and those born after don’t know enough about what they’re missing to care either. So they live off the corpse of the old world, eating wild animals or out of cans for decades, not bothering to learn how to plant their own crops or keep their own farms.
So, if you’re looking for a primer on how to keep a small community alive in an urban environment after the collapse of civilization, this isn’t it. This is almost an anthropological study, seen as it’s happening, of the recreation of society from scratch, and as it goes on, we’re not sure if that society will turn out to be recognizable to those of us left behind or not.
So like I said before, if you’re not a fan of the genre, or are looking for a more action-oriented story, this might not be for you. But for a true fan, Earth Abides is one of the “Big Ones”, on most every list of the best post-apocalyptic novels ever written, so if you haven’t read it yet, you really should.