Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

The novel “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart was published for the first time in 1949. It won the International Fantasy Award.

Isherwood “Ish” Williams is working on his graduate thesis in the mountains when he gets bitten by a rattlesnake. He manages to get rid of most of the poison but spends days unwell, even from what appears to be an illness unrelated to the poisoning. When he gets strong enough again, he travels to the nearest town and finds it deserted, only the first evidence of a mass death caused by an unknown disease.

Ish seeks out other survivors, who are few in number and not always friendly, sometimes in a severely altered state of mind. After touring the now almost completely depopulated USA, he returns to California and decides to settle in the area. He finds a woman, Emma, and the two of them decide to live together. Over time, they find a few other survivors with whom to form a small community but what can be the future of humanity?

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories were already a classic in 1949. In “Earth Abides”, George R. Stewart gives an in-depth vision of various themes related to the future of the world after the near disappearance of humanity that make it a great classic not only in its genre.

George R. Stewart was a university teacher and eclectic writer who produced works of various literary genres and essays on historical subjects and people. At a time when American science fiction was still heavily tied to pulp magazines, Stewart was an author who came from an academic background and you can see that in “Earth Abides”.

The novel follows practically the entire adult life of the protagonist Isherwood “Ish” Williams, a college geography student who spends a period of isolation in the Sierra Nevada mountains only to discover that in the meantime, an extremely lethal disease has wiped out almost all human beings.

Ish has scientific knowledge and begins to rationally analyze the situation and his prospects in an attitude that accompanies him throughout his life. In his choices, he’s also influenced by religion and some religious elements are important in the development of the plot but over time, religion is one of the things abandoned by the survivors. The new situation makes many habits and conventions useless if not harmful. In a 1949 novel, Ish’s abandonment of any racist attitude is far from granted.

Compared to earlier apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, “Earth Abides” was written at a time when Americans living in cities were used to utilities and cars were becoming more widespread. This is important in the plot because Ish tries to use cars on his trips and, even though the power plants are the first to fail, the local aqueduct continues to supply water to Emma’s house in which Ish takes up residence.

Even in the search for food, the situation of the time is decisive. Ish and the other survivors with whom he forms a small community slowly learn to butcher the animals present in the area but above all scavenge canned food. In some respects, the life of the survivors is quite comfortable and quite different from that of the pioneers. Things change for the following generations with situations becoming a major part of the plot of the later parts of the novel.

Animals and plants and the changes in the populations of the various species make up one of the important themes of Ish’s observations and reflections. Without humans, nature takes back the territory but in a chaotic way, with periods of growth and decline that can be radically different for the various species.

Ecology is a big topic today, but “Earth Abides” is wholly extraordinary in the way it, through its protagonist, examines humanity’s influence on nature. In the decades that follow the almost complete disappearance of humanity, Ish witnesses the mid and long-term consequences of such a radical change.

Often, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories focus on the struggle for survival of the survivors and their descendants and are focused on the adventurous side. “Earth Abides” is much more focused on the food for thought offered by the situations in which the characters find themselves, their environment, and future prospects. These profound themes make this novel special and still very interesting to read regardless of genre labels.

1 Comment

  1. Sixty-seven year old, retired high school English teacher here. This is one of my all time favorite books. I recommend it any time I see a person looking for a good read. No explosions, zombies, aliens, etc…just a calm, logical man, witnessing the slow removal of mankind’s touch on the world. Wonderful reading!


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