Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Earth Abides

George R. Stewart Earth Abides (1949)

The immediate wake of the second world war most likely seemed an appropriate time for consideration of worlds wiped clean of all but a scattering of humanity, I suppose that being the era during which it was made particularly apparent that some disasters could occur on a global scale if the political wind was blowing in a certain direction. George R. Stewart avoids the politics, cleaning his slate with an unexplained pandemic which at least allows him to concentrate on the issue of survival and how one might go forth after the fall of human civilisation; so despite the circumstances, Earth Abides at least kicks off on a positive note as something seeking solutions rather than simply identifying problems. The initial resemblance of Isherwood Williams' situation to that of Robinson Crusoe stranded upon his island is deliberate and is acknowledged:

One day, wanting to shake himself out of his apathy, he went to the Public Library, smashed a lock with his hammer, and after some browsing found himself (a little to his own amusement) walking out with Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson.

These books, however, did not interest him greatly. Crusoe's religious preoccupations seemed boring and rather silly. As for the Robinsons, he felt (as he had felt when he was a boy) that the ship remained for the family a kind of infinite grab-bag from which at any time they might take exactly what they wanted.

Ish is alone for most of the first part of the book, feeling his way and learning how to get by, mapping out the full extent of that which has been lost or which no longer applies:

As the world now was, a Pharisee or Sadducee might perhaps still follow the set rites of formalised religion, but the very humanity of the teachings of Jesus rendered them obsolete.

Accordingly the first part of the novel is arguably pastoral and maintains a tone not unlike that of Clifford D. Simak:

Looking out from the car, he saw only the handsome Dalmatian, sitting at the side of the road. Now being safe, Ish felt his attitude quickly changing. Actually the dogs had done him no harm, and indeed had not really even threatened him. During a few minutes he had thought of them as wild creatures thirsting for his blood. Now, they seemed a little pitiful, as if they might merely have been seeking the companionship of a man because of what they remembered long ago—of food laid out in dishes, of crackling logs in the fireplace, of a patting hand and a soothing voice. As he drove away, he wished them no bad luck, but rather hoped that they would manage occasionally to snap up a rabbit or pull down a calf.

Unfortunately for both the story and its protagonists, Ish and his small group of survivors come to rely upon their vanished civilisation much as the Robinsons did their ship, scavenging tinned or otherwise preserved food from the stores of deserted cities, living in vacated houses whilst the water and electricity last. Unable to let go of the past, they become a sort of cargo cult epitomised by one family who stock their post-apocalyptic home with top of the range consumer goods with nothing to power them. The group fails to adapt, just as we ourselves continue to fail to adapt to circumstances changing at ever-increasing rates, and so they are doomed even whilst the Earth itself abides.

The story is well told and makes a point worth making in easy, folksy terms, but the problem is that Earth Abides makes its point with the implausible metaphor of nothing much having changed two decades down the line. The survivors are still living in the ruined city, ranging ever further afield in search of goods canned more than twenty years earlier, and the fact that no-one has yet thought to do so much as plant a potato just to see what happens suggests that they're idiots, and it becomes increasingly difficult to feel sympathy. It's a shame for something which gets off to such a good start, and whilst it tries hard and kicks up all sorts of thought provoking ideas along the route, the whole ultimately feels unfortunately like a bit of a wasted effort. They get there in the end, abandoning the useless relics of what was and returning to social forms much closer to those of the Native Americans. I suppose Earth Abides needed to make the point of just why such relics should be discarded, but if felt like a long time spent learning a fairly simple lesson.


  1. Good review of a pretty good book but I'm not sure I agree with you about the 'plant a potato' thing. It took hunter gatherers many generations to evolve into farmers even with the threat of starvation to focus minds. (And even then my guess would be that a lot of the early agricultural experimentation was done by visionary wierdos!) Why would a bunch of people with access to leftover tinned food bother? For me the interesting aspect of the novel was that even though one person knew exactly what needed to be done to preserve some of the previous civiliization's values, that knowledge alone just wasn't enough unless you can also persuade everyone else that you're right...

    By the way, in a similar vein, you might be interested to know there's an intriguing new comic out by Alan Moore which covers (sort of) similar territory

    1. Maybe I didn't make my point very well. I could have some of this wrong so it may be worth checking but as I recall farming is actually more physically demanding and yields a poorer diet than hunter-gathering, and Susan Blackmore explains the broad scale adoption of farming as something memetic in The Meme Machine (which is a great read even if this sounds like bollocks) so, in other words, the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer is generally speaking a one-way street. Ish and the others have no need to discover farming anew seeing as they must surely be aware of it as a general concept even if none of them have ever themselves done so much as dig a garden, so I suppose the bottom line is that I myself found it unconvincing, and the thought of a diet of twenty-year old canned goods seems slightly nauseating. What you say about one person knowing what should be done and needing to convince the others is indeed an interesting aspect, but as I say I just couldn't get over the "yum yum ancient baked beans" thing. Thanks for the link by the way - I'll look out for that.

    2. ..which probably isn't that clear because it's late and I'm tired. To elaborate on "the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer is generally speaking a one-way street" I mean they have enough of the same instinct to attempt to settle rather than immediately becoming wandering scavengers, so attempting to grow stuff, or even just settling near an apple tree really shouldn't seem like such an alien concept in my view.

  2. I know what you mean about the reality of the transition from hunters to farmers being more complex, although my guess is it's one of those subjects that we'll never get any sort of authoritative answer to, (there's very limited evidence and it's such a big question covering vast amounts of time and space) and all the 'research' into the area is fascinating but little more than guesses imho. But I think it's fair to say that Stewart was riffing off the 'classical' explanation.

    Not really trying to change your mind about the book, I think I agree with you but I think many people aren't so imaginative when all their immediate needs are being met and there's more than a little truth in the old line 'necessity is the mother of invention'