[Review] Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

There’s a phrase that is used quite often to promote television movies or special episodes of “Law and Order.” The phrase is “ripped from the headlines.”

This phrase could almost apply to the book I just read. It’s a book about a world ravaged by a deadly disease. The disease spreads so quickly because the world is essentially smaller than it used to be. With air travel and car travel, the ability of a disease to spread around the world is made much easier.

The survivors of this world must ban together and make due with what they have. They must figure out a way to survive and live off what’s left. They must deal with the loss of electricity and running water, as well as cars that don’t function and streets that are blocked by falling trees and decaying infrastructure.

With the Swine Flu in the news and various apocalyptic scenarios being discussed because of the financial markets, this novel is very appropriate to the times. However,  I said the phrase “ripped from the headlines” could “almost” apply to the book I just read.

The reason it could not be applied to this book, is because it was written in 1949.

The Blurb from the back

The planet has been overwhelmed. A new and unknown disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of civlization, overrunning all attempts to quarantine, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he, who will ultimately become the last America, will discover will be far more — and far more astonishing — than anything he’d either dreaded or hoped for.

Not Just Science Fiction

The thing that struck me most about Earth Abides is the fact that, while most people will pigeonhole into the science fiction genre, it’s really just a good story about people. Yes, it’s kind of fantastic in it’s scope, and we really hope this kind of thing never happens, but it’s genuine and realistic in its portrayal of how this kind of event might play out. While there are some people who are a little “off” after the end of the world, there aren’t any strange mutant creatures created by the aftermath of the atomic weapons — just people who really can’t deal with the fact that everyone they know is dead. Kind of an understandable reaction, really.

In fact, even the event that causes the world to come crashing down is down to earth and not too unexpected. The main character of the story is saved, not by anything too mysterious — just a fortunately timed rattlesnake bite. (Before you get too worried about a spoiler, there, this is explained early on in the story.)

Character Abounds

What drives this epic story is the main character, Isherwood Williams. Now, having been reading Moby Dick, I don’t think I could deny that shortening his name to Ish and allowing us to think of Ishmael was by no means a mistake. Ishmael of Moby Dick was, for a large part, a spectator. Isherwood Williams is also that spectator, and gives us the ring side seat to this strange event and the events that follow it.

However, while Ishmael of Moby Dick really does just spectate, Isherwood Williams takes a direct part in most everything, creating his tribe and attempting to rebuild society. It’s the way he goes about this, with a strange kind of arrogance brought about by his education, that is very entertaining to the reader. In some ways, Isherwood is a genius, but in other ways, he doesn’t seem to have a clue. He takes great care of his library (book smarts), but has a very hard time dealing with people and their disagreements (street smarts).

Isherwood also develops a great sense of guilt and personal responsibility for the survival of the human race. It’s these feelings that really drive the story forward and create the major conflict.

Don’t Call Me Old

While this book was written in 1949, I was struck by the fact that never, during the whole time I read it, did it feel dated. References to items such as automobiles and appliances were vague enough that it could have been cars and appliances of modern day as easily as it could have been those of the 40s and 50s. One thing I notice now that I look back, is the absence of computers. Since electricity was gone pretty early on, though, they wouldn’t have been very helpful, anyway.

Overall, I was very impressed by Earth Abides. What starts as an almost cliche end-of-the-world story, turns very quickly into an impressive commentary on the human condition. Highly recommended, even if the only copy you can find is one with browned, dog-eared pages.


Grade: A
Who would like this book: People who enjoy a good character-driven story
Who would not like this book: People who are a bit squeamish and don’t want to think of a world that’s missing most of it’s people

One thought on “[Review] Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

  1. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: November 7, 2009 : Semicolon

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