Earth Abides is a classic of speculative fiction and is often compared favorably to later and more simple-minded post-apocalyptic novels. But it should also be put in the context of Stewart’s other books, especially Storm (1941) and Fire (1948), both of which portray the conflict between human activity and natural forces. If there is such a thing as an environmental novelist, Stewart certainly fills the bill. Earth Abides, incidentally, was adapted for radio in 1950 and can be heard here (part one) and here (part two).
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Random House (1949), 373 pp.
Ish Williams interrupts his ecological research in the Northern California foothills to seek treatment for a nasty snakebite. As he heads back to civilization, he finds only a corpse on the road and no one in the nearest town. He learns from a recent newspaper that an epidemic of an unknown disease has killed much of mankind. When Ish gets back to Berkeley, he discovers that only a few people are still alive and they are not coping well with the crisis. Yet he’s not completely discouraged, believing that his curiosity, adaptability, and solitary nature will allow him live on “with some degree of happiness.”
This remarkable novel does nothing less than examine man’s relationship to his environment and his culture. The viewpoint of the first part of the book is ecological. Stewart shows what happens to Ish’s surroundings when natural forces are unconstrained. After Ish founds a colony of survivors, Stewart turns the narrative in a more anthropological direction. He explores the impact that remnants of pre-epidemic civilization have on the newly emerging society. Stewart handles these monumental themes with erudition and dispassion. Sometimes, in fact, he’s overly concerned with getting his points across. The narrative slows to a crawl each time Ish explains to himself (and the reader) the meaning of one event or another. If Stewart had had more confidence in his audience, he could have lopped a hundred pages from the book. Even so, many readers will find the novel fascinating and thought-provoking.