Friday, 8 August 2003

George R. Stewart: Earth Abides (1949)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 1178

Of all the post-apocalyptic science fiction novels ever written, Earth Abides is probably the most poetic. George R. Stewart wrote only the one science fiction novel, and his is one of the less well known classics of the genre. Most literary writers seem to adapt poorly to science fiction, overusing its clich├ęs, but Stewart is one of a handful (in the company of Orwell, Huxley and possibly Atwood) to have found something to say and a way to say it which has expanded the reach of the genre.

The narrator, Isherwood Williams, is working in the high desert mountains of northern California, alone in a remote cabin, when the disaster strikes. Like John Wyndham in the contemporary The Day of the Triffids, Stewart eschews the obvious atomic apocalypse to eradicate almost all of humanity with a plague, survived only by those naturally immune or particularly remote. (Today, the plague, especially if caused by human tampering with genetics, is the fashionable apocalypse.) The novel has three main parts - the initial disaster and its immediate aftermath; the situation twenty years later, as a small group of survivors faces some major crises; and a fast forward to the last days of Ish's life, as possibly the last old American left alive.

Many novels of this type are about the process of rebuilding civilization after the catastrophe, but Earth Abides has one feature which really makes it stand out. Almost immediately after discovering what has happened, Ish sets out to travel around the States, to try and understand it. The descriptions of the deserted cities (and the handful of people that Ish does find alive) is the novel's major strength; it is an elegy for the end of the civilization we still see around us, and evokes such things as the empty city marvellously.

When describing the beginning of the renewed rise of civilization, most science fiction novels assume that the intellectual legacy of the past will be important, and that everything a group does will involve sensible planning (for example, ensuring the preservation of seed). This is at least partly because of the history of the science fiction genre, in that both readers and editors (especially in the States), approved of stories in which the intellectual man of science with whom they identified was able to triumph (sometimes writers seem to be trying to write a manual on "how to survive the coming catastrophe" rather than fiction). In Earth Abides, Stewart is not so optimistic about the ability of reason to reign supreme, and it must be admitted that there is a great deal of evidence on his side. Ish may be the most vocal member of the small community which grows up around him and the woman that he meets after returning from his travels, but he never manages to persuade them of such things as the importance of education and the preservation of learning. Ish is not as all knowing as tends to be the case with the characters with a scientific background in this situation, either (think of Heinlein's omnicompetent heroes for the standard examples from the time). He is caught out by the various waves of animal population explosion and collapse which follow the removal of checks and balances imposed by mankind (which occur at different times, depending on the reproductive rate of the animal concerned); as a result he is unable to have seed stockpiled before a plague of rats makes it virtually impossible to scavenge. (The group live for years mainly on tins recovered from around San Francisco.)

Earth Abides is the sole example of Stewart's distinctive voice in the science fiction genre, and it remains something of an outsider, a forgotten classic.

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