Earth Abides is an inversion of the story of Ishi, the last of surviving member Yahi tribe in California. In August of 1911, Ishi walked out of a stone age life and into the modern, technological civilization of the U.S. west coast. In the press at the time, Ishi was a metric against which we could measure the remarkable progress of our scientific society. Earth Abides describes history moving in reverse. Isherwood Williams, a graduate student studying ecology, stumbles out of the California woods to find that nearly all of humanity has been wiped out by plague.
Ish, thrown into a suddenly unfamiliar world and recognizing the scientific opportunity, sets out to observe a world empty of humans. At the time of the plague, Ish was in the woods conducting a field study, and he missed the death and mayhem. He encounters few corpses - most of humanity has quietly exited before Ish begins his observations of nature settling back into equilibrium after human controls have been removed.
Enterprising scientist that he is, Ish undertakes the classic post-apocalyptic road trip, traveling from California to New York in order to scout out what’s left of the world. He finds a few survivors on the way, and after a short time spent with a typical New York couple (they aren’t leaving the deteriorating city, since neither of them drives), Ish heads back west. He moves into the house he grew up in, and, with a few other survivors, forms a pleasant, post-apocalyptic suburbia, with a few twists. Ish (who is white) marries a black women, Emma; his neighbor Ezra takes on two wives. Pre-holocaust notions like racism and monogamy are no longer operative. The survivors call themselves ‘The Tribe,’ but in jest, as if expecting that one day their former lives will be returned. Eventually it become clear that the bustling city is never going to be reconstituted by this ragged band of survivors, and ‘Tribe’ becomes an apt description of their society.
Earth Abides is no gritty survivor tale. In many respects, the pre-apocalyptic middle class lifestyle of the survivors didn't change much, except that they witness the steady erasure of their former lives. Ish lives to see his society gradually revert to a superstitious primitivism, and the technological civilization in which he grew up becomes the subject of myth. The towers of the Bay Bridge, visible in the distance, embody an irrecoverable past whose signs and artifacts are being slowly torn down.
The book’s biblical epigraph captures Stewart’s main theme of impermanence and deep time: “Men go and come, but Earth abides.” Ish, an ecologist, sees the destruction of humanity as an ecological experiment; he observes nature “after the removal of man’s controls.” In spite of humanity’s technological accomplishments, our control over nature is only temporary, and is destined to fail against the larger, more permanent rhythms of nature.
Ish resists the inevitable and is anxious to restore civilization. I found him both sympathetic and frustrating. In his mind, civilization exists only with technology, and technology exists when there are great men to invent it. In his suburban enclave, Ish is the only intellectual, and he struggles in vain to pass on his knowledge, or even an interest in knowledge, to his neighbors and children. He is prone to portentous and moralizing pronouncements, and constantly judges people, including his own children, based on their perceived intelligence and interest in intellect, because he believes that the smartest among them are going to someday lead their community back to humanity’s former technological glory.
And yet Ish himself is a halfhearted teacher and finds himself afflicted with the same mood of apathy experienced by everyone else when it comes to actually doing something. When their first cars give out, the people revert to dog sleds, and yet, twenty years later when Ish’s sons are about to set out to explore the continent, Ish easily finds a brand new, functioning Jeep at a car dealership. Modern transportation just lay there for the taking, but nobody was motivated enough to run it.
Stewart himself tends to sound overly portentous on occasion, perhaps because 60 years later I find it difficult view our society as the lofty result of a lengthy slog along a path leading to progressively greater achievements of civilization. Science, technology, and rational thinking are not the only elements of a great civilization, but the conventional view in 1940’s and 50’s post-apocalyptic fiction is that without scientific thinking, we inevitably slide back into the worst medieval barbarism. In this regard, Stewart isn’t the worst offender. Ish’s descendants do fall into an overdone superstition, but they are not savages. The people of The Tribe are shaped at least as much by Ish’s intelligent, wise, and rock-solid wife Em as they are by Ish’s lectures. A humane civilization does exist without modern technology.
Why is Earth Abides a classic? Stewart’s beautifully paced writing certainly contributes. More importantly, Stewart manages to very effectively convey a sense of vastness, of deep time, of the slow rhythms of nature that existed long before us, and which will continue long after our frenetic, technological society is history. Earth Abides is a remarkably placid post-apocalyptic novel. It is not a warning of impending doom; instead, it is an effort to put our impermanent lives into the more durable and magisterial context of nature’s time scale.
Next up in our post-apocalyptic survey: 1950, and L. Sprague de Camp's pulp evolutionary adventure, Genus Homo.
Read the feed: