Humans have always been preoccupied with apocalypse. Whether we're coming up with bizarre interpretations of the Revelation to St. John, making movies about giant asteroids hurling toward earth, or considering Mayan calendar wheels, the annihilation of the human race is always on our collective mind.
Which makes novels about the end of the world particularly fascinating. Except that Earth Abides isn't about the end of the world at all, it's specifically about the end of the human race, and the eternality of the planet we live on. It's a post-apocalyptic novel that set many of the standards for the genre upon its 1949 publication.
Isherwood Williams is saved from death by the height of civilization. He's in the mountains working on his college thesis when he's bit by a rattlesnake. While recovering, he gets an infection like measles, lengthening the time of his convalescence. When he finally returns to civilization, he finds things in utter disarray.
Humanity has been decimated by the same infection Isherwood had in the mountains. He goes to his parents's house in San Francisco and meets only a few people and a dog—two of the people are insane. Isherwood makes a journey to New York and then returns to California. He meets a woman who becomes his wife, and they form a community with other survivors.
As an aspiring academic, Isherwood spends a lot of time trying to impart scholarly knowledge to the survivors and their children, but these attempts largely fall short. Rather than books, which represent now-extinct civilization, the new humanity is preoccupied with the art of survival, and soon begins to resemble primitive people groups rather than modern Americans.
In fact, Ishwerwood comes to think of himself as the Last American. He sees subsequent generations of survivors becoming less and less "civilized," and more and more in tune with the earth. By the time he reaches old age, Isherwood has gone from trying to resurrect civilization to hoping that future generations won't rediscover it.
Throughout the book, Isherwood's nickname is "Ish," and this is the Hebrew word for "man." It's a bleak symbolism when you think about it, but there's also a sense in which this is already the state in which humanity finds itself. With learning becoming increasingly a commodity rather than a necessity, Ish's eventual capitulation to fate doesn't seem that far-fetched.
But there's also a stark contrast between Ish and the other survivors. While they have little interest or need for learning, he continues to urge it upon them, up until the very end. He only gives up as an old man, when he comes to the conclusion that man is in fact at war with the earth, and the earth will always win.
George R. Stewart's prose is very good, his characters are fully formed, and he knows how to write great adventure scenes. In addition to the philosophical questions he raises, Earth Abides is worth reading just as an exciting story of post-apocalyptic survival and danger. Long out of print, the restoration of this classic is a gift for science fiction fans everywhere.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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