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.