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REVIEW: Earth Abides by George R Stewart


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.

9 Comments on REVIEW: Earth Abides by George R Stewart

  1. For your next post-holocaust excursion, see if you can track down “Lot/Lot’s Daughter” by Ward Moore. One very scary book. “Shadow on the Hearth” by Judith Merrill is another scary one. “Farnham’s Freehold” by Heinlein, is good to a point. Then there’s “On the Beach” by Shute. Then there’s about my favorite in the genre, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter Miller. (But you already knew that by reading my blog…)

  2. Trivia: The original printing of Earth Abides was not marketed as sf, but rather as general fiction.

    Also: As posted previously, there is a two part radio drama of Earth Abides. [For some reason, those links appear broken right now, but try again – the site’s original posts are still available.]

  3. I must read this book. It’s been on my wish list for a while now since I am a fan of post-apocalyptic literature, but I haven’t run across it anywhere. Is that a sign that people are keeping their copies and not selling them to used books stores? Or has it been out of print that long? I don’t know, but this positive review will make me redouble my effort to find it.

    Alas, Babylon is also a good post-apocalyptic story of a small group of people trying to survive. It sounds like they try a little harder than the characters in Earth Abides.

  4. “A Canticle for Leibowitz” is fantastic, I agree Fred. Of course, that book wasn’t published (as a novel) until 1959 – Stewart predates Miller by a decade (to be fair, a version of the first part of Canticle was published in 1955.) The Heinlein novella Freehold was published in 1964, Beach was published in 1957, the Lot books in ’53 and ’54, “Shadow on the Hearth” in 1950.

    For some reason the fact that Earth Abides was published in 1949 just amazes me. I had read half the book before I looked to see when it was first published – and while I knew it was a reprint and was initially done years ago, I would have guessed 1965 or 1970 from the text.

  5. Sounds a lot like the earth after a terrible worldwide pandemic of avian influenza. Perhaps I should read it again, been a while.

    I still remember the part where the rats were out of control. Ish seemed like a level headed fellow, not sure why he did not try to keep some technology. Ever try to farm without fertilizer? Bugs eat most of your food without spray. Also, people die of cuts without antiobiotics.

    The future is a lot darker than you think!

  6. :-S earth abides was very boring. probably because i hate sci-fi the only moving part of the book was when joey died. i sympathized with Ish.

    I hated the slow ending as well, and I don’t understand why Ish didn’t take all of his kids to the library from a young age and encourage them to learn. Also, why the heck did he replace car tires or act as if cars were impossible to take and use. Em and Ish could’ve used two/three cars everyday or once a week to keep the cars in decent conditions. As for the flat tire problems, what happened to pumping them with air? Car tire air pumps existed in the 1940’s. This book was not realistic as it could’ve been to make the reader truely question their futures and possible apocalypses. Whatever.

  7. Just finished it. Loved it. LOTS. AND LOTS. AND LOTS.

    I liked the end more than the start. The slow transformation from hard science to thoughts on the new society was great.

  8. Berry Berkley // October 2, 2008 at 11:28 am //

    I was reading this site looking for “classic” post-apocalyptic books.  While I have heard of “On the Beach” (Seen the movie, never read the book), I’d like to read “Earth Abides”, as the “first” post-apocalyptic story.  One earlier book that might be classified as “post-apocalyptic” is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “The Lost Continent”, which I have read.  Published in 1915, at the height of World War I, the premise of the story is that the United States stays out of the War and becomes isolated.  The war in Europe drags on into the1970s and totally devastates the continent.  When an expedition from the “Pan-American Federation” arrive in Great Britain in the year 2137 they find only a hand ful of survivors, living in nearly stone age conditions, just as a few tribes in continental Europe are living.

  9. Ashpool // June 27, 2011 at 2:10 am //

    One of my favorites and one of the better post apocalyptic novels I have read.  Stewart, from what I took from the book was no mechanic and probably not a handy man either.  His characters didn’t fix things probably because he himself didn’t really have those kind of skills.  A lot of the criticism I read focuses on this.  “Why didn’t he do this or fix that?’  Maybe he was simply pessimistic about the average Joe.  Many of the scenarios he wrote were unlikely, still it was a fun read. 



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