George Stewart’s Earth Abides is a 1949 post-apocalyptic novel, set largely in San Francisco, between the years of approximately 1950 up to roughly 2010. Isherwood Williams is engaged in some fieldwork for his graduate studies in geography at the University of San Francisco. While out one day in the hills north of the Bay, he finds an abandoned geologist’s four-pound crack hammer (a hefty piece of kit, I prefer the 3 lb. version), and shortly thereafter is bitten by a rattlesnake. Suffering the effects of the poison, he reaches the small cabin where he was staying, under primitive conditions, and manages to extract some of the snake venom with his snakebite kit. Afterwards, he spends several days’ delirium poised between life and death.
When Ish is sufficiently recovered, he emerges from the cabin to find that a plague has swept through the human population not merely of the immediate region but the world, leaving very few still alive. He returns to his parents’ house in the city, but assumes that they have both died. After some bewilderment, Ish elects to set out and explore, to see what has become of the rest of the country. His explorations take him as far to the north and east as New York City, but he returns alone despite having encountered a few scattered individuals and groups survivors. After his return to San Francisco, however, Ish gradually falls in with others, including Emma, Ezra, George, and others, who become the foundation of “the Tribe,” a group of survivors.
That, at least, is the setup to the book, accomplished in the first section. What is annoying is Stewart’s decision – made repeatedly – to gloss over the areas of the story which might have advanced the action dramatically, and instead favoring philosophical instances and discursions in Ish’s mind. The details of the mechanics of the collapse of society appear to interest Stewart far less than philosophy. Ish’s hammer, which he has kept since that first day in the wilderness, has become the symbol of his authority, The sole dramatic tension in the book is created by the appearance of Charlie, a survivor from Los Angeles who threatens the balance of the group. But instead of using this tension for dramatic purposes, Charlie is summarily executed and buried in the space of a few words. The action, as it were, takes place entirely off-camera, with the result that the only thing impelling the reader to continue is sheer bloody-mindedness.
Ish is also a curiously incompetent “leader.” Although he has callow youthfulness working against him, he is seemingly unable to devise simple solutions to problems in the burgeoning community. Crows come and eat your crops? You have limitless supplies and some skilled manpower – why not build greenhouses? Children begin to run wild? Institute school from an early age, so they know nothing else, and devote one member of the community to curriculum. Maintenance and chores are an issue? Develop a rota, prioritize tasks. Leadership is a question or an issue? Form a simple government. For a philosophically-minded man, Stewart and his hero are woefully impractical, and as a result, the community will slide back into the bronze age in a matter of three generations.
And the rest of the book rather peters out from there. Ish gets older. All of the other original survivors die, and Ish is left with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, crossing into the 21st century without much heed being paid. The Golden Gate Bridge continues to stand as something of a symbol, but of constancy or decay Stewart can’t seem to decide. Maybe Mount Tamelpais, mentioned by name only once, would be a better reference for constancy. Some notions of the story were interesting: the discussion with his great-grandson, for instance, about the faces which appeared on coins, appeared to indicate that the story was written about a decade before it was published (references to the “Buffalo” nickels, which ceased production in 1938 when they were replaced by Jefferson, and the “Mercury” dimes, which were discontinued in 1946 when they were replaced by the Roosevelt dime); also the noting of the fact that dimes, quarters, and halves were made of coin silver, rather than the zinc-coated mix that replaced them in 1965, was something which a casual numismatist might enjoy puzzling out.
Really, that’s the problem with Earth Abides. There are a lot of interesting twists that should have made this a better book. Instead, it fails in the second and third parts to complete a coherent dramatic delivery. The beginning of the novel is compelling, but by the end, sixty years later, it feels as though the book has given up the ghost, and it’s best to move on.
Earth Abides was adapted for CBS radio’s long-running serial program Escape, in two half-hour episodes. For a flavor of the story, these dramas are worth listening to, and Part I and Part II can be freely accessed through the Internet Archive page for the 1949-50 season of Escape. The condensed version of the story saves it from many of the excesses of the novel.
I struggled to like this book, and finally decided that it was not all that it was cracked up to be. Stewart seems to have wanted to be both philosopher and storyteller, and as a result he accomplished neither with any particular degree of aplomb. I don’t object to the philosophical angle of the novel, but rather the fact that Stewart allowed it and his ideas about what was important for survival to dominate the drama. Much better novels about the “end of the world” have been written, and some, like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, tell similar stories without succumbing to these flaws, and even manage to make similar ecological and philosophical points. Unfortunately, although I enjoyed some elements and the San Francisco setting, there were too many weaknesses in this book for me to give it more than a middle-of-the-road rating. Three stars.
eBOOK NOTE: if you read the Kindle edition of this novel, be prepared for numerous errors resulting from sloppy editing of an OCR-scanned text. The first half of the book appears to have been proofed more thoroughly than the second, and if you’re an attentive reader, it will be hugely irritating. Say what you will, paper is better.
Originally reviewed 2 February 2014.
Find your copy of Earth Abides at AbeBooks.com (the link takes you directly to the search results).