by George R. Stewart
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart has the dubious distinction of being the first mass-published post-apocalyptic novel after WWII. Originally published in 1949, Earth Abides tells the story of Isherwood “Ish” Williams, one of few survivors of a plague that has wiped out mankind. In its historical contexts, Stewart’s book finds itself published after The Holocaust and at the dawning of The Cold War. When reading the book, it’s clear the Holocaust had no influence on Stewart’s prose, but with the threat of nuclear weapons growing as a source of anxiety around the world on a daily basis, Earth Abides reaffirms the idea that no matter what human beings have done to the world, or added to the world, we will have no more effect on the planet’s heath than a zit on your forehead would to your ability to breathe. Still, the looming threat of a nuclear holocaust is also not echoed in this novel.
According to Stewart our modern societies are no safer from destruction than the empires of Rome, the Ottomans or the British, and despite the main character’s struggle to maintain any semblance of the world from which he came, by the end of the novel mankind has been reduced to the pure Darwinian instinct to survive.
Earth Abides is royalty in the sci-fi canon, and while I am glad I read the book, I can’t say I’d read it again, nor would I teach it in a class. Stewart’s prose is conscious of itself—sometimes you can’t tell if you’re reading Ish’s thoughts or Stewart’s will and manipulation of his argument. The narration is forced, and it’s structure fails. When Ish’s thoughts/actions via the third-person narrator is not leading the narration, there are italicized sections with no attribution (except once, in which we’re told it’s Ish’s grandson). These sections come off as a wink-wink/nudge-nudge addendum to the narration—DIDJA GETIT? DIDJA GETIT?
The structure also fails in that we’re focused on Ish’s entire life post-plague and Stewart breezes through decades with chapters his calls “The Quick Years.” These chapters again come off as a narrator who refuses to let go and let the character tell the story. If Earth Abides were translated into a movie page-by-page, you’d be forced to watch two montages of calendars flying away in the breeze and Ish and his tribe performing key tasks that will move the plot forward.
I picked up the book knowing it was one of the first novels dealing with the annihilation of mankind written after the Holocaust in Europe. My hope was that Stewart was going to make some sort of comment on genocide, or echo the idea that after the Holocaust, as Theodor Adorno declared, “there can be no more poetry,” and thus the idea of “mankind” has been sullied. But Stewart never goes there. Instead, he seems to have been more inspired by Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague. He also seems more interested in convincing you that civilization and technology has ruined our ability to truly care for ourselves (particularly when we see George and his wife clinging to lamps and stereos that no longer have any function, yet maintain an idealized and missed status of “arriving” in society). Stewart treats us to rotting homes, buildings, roads and intelligence, but he offers no alternative. He romanticizes primitive man at the cost of also losing human emotions. It is this later idea any good writer would have clung onto and reflected the post-WWII/pre-Cold War ear. Instead, Stewart treats us to his own “Tarzan,” relegating this book, for me, to the teenager pulp fiction pile.