BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 99% of the Earth’s population is wiped out in two weeks thanks to a pandemic plague (origin unknown.) The action centers around a survivor named Ish and his coming to grips with the new world he finds himself in – both the changes in technology and the changes in society.
PROS: Written in 1949, it is the seminal book on post-apocalyptic society, this book has an fantastic sci-fi insight on nearly every page.
CONS: The ending is a bit tedious and some parts are melodramatic.
BOTTOM LINE: If you’ve never read this book, you’ll soon learn where all the other writers of post-apocalyptic fiction got their ideas from. The third person narrative is straight forward and easy to read, and the physical and emotional trials of Ish are presented in a powerful way.
The first two-thirds of the book is mostly a discussion of the more physical (hard sci-fi) elements that go towards explaining what happens to the world – the electricity, the water, the things that man has built as well as the ecology of a world suddenly devoid of man. The last third takes more of a soft-science approach as it explores the new societies which spring up in the 50 years following the disaster.
I enjoyed both parts equally well, although I thought the ending was a bit too introspective. It would be difficult to catalogue every idea presented, but some of the more important are the plagues of ants, cows, rats, and other animals that swarm into tremendous numbers due to the huge amount of food available and then die off when that ready food is destroyed. There is a good discussion on the fate of technology such as the electric plants (which work well in an automated fashion for the most part – until they run out of lubrication), water plants (which again work until natural forces conspire to break pipes), as well as more mundane things like cars. The food supply changes a lot as well – while there is a ready supply of canned goods in supermarkets (for a good while anyway) certain staples that aren’t native to the US widely disappear (like wheat and corn.)
The anthropology is extremely well done too. The dispersed societies that grows up around the few survivors is well explored – some that focus on secular humanism, religious cults, and of course xenophobic introspection. Ish takes an African American wife – almost unworthy of mention today, but hugely controversial when released into America of the 1950’s. Stewart’s characters are easy to identify with and understand despite being a somewhat cold view of man’s limitations given the few who seem to be of high intelligence.
Stewart writes a prose that’s easy to read and easy to understand. He also includes little italicized sections in the middle of the main story to explain the way the natural forces take back the land now that man is no longer there to keep them at bay. The elimination of all the things man has created is unstoppable – and few of the survivors appear interested in doing so. That alone is a fantastic ideas as well – that presented with the fall of civilization people would adapt and in fact reject any return to that, instead preferring to live as comfortable a life as they could carve out amidst the decaying ruins. On the one hand his message is dark – that given the chance man will revert back to superstitious hunter-gatherers. But on the other the message is bright – that man can and will endure through any and all hardships; that our society today may be grand but ultimately not required for the success of the species.
Ultimately it was the darker part of this which had the biggest impact on me. Given the choice between reading books and learning how to rebuild or retool civilization or playing a game dodging wild bulls, the people of Stewart’s world choose the bull. I find that too dark and simple – I’d like to believe that confronted with this situation, most people would work to rebuild, if not totally at least significantly. When the electricity grid fails, nobody makes any attempt to figure out another way to get it back. When the water system fails, again nobody makes a serious attempt to restore it. This in itself is amazing – given the advanced things man can do with electricity, it’s hard to imagine giving it up so quickly. Rather than ignore it, I’d like to believe people would rig up water-based generators and make-shift aqueducts.
I believe that if you like fiction of any type, that you should read Earth Abides and that you will enjoy it. This is one of those rare books that transcends the sci-fi genre – it stands as significant work of fiction. I’m surprised that more high school and college programs don’t read this book (although it’s lack of in-depth symbolism perhaps makes them shy away.) This is an important book – one that shouldn’t be missed.