I absolutely love and am fascinated with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives. To me, they speak far more about our current theological, philosophical, and political state of affairs than they ever do about how it’s all going to go down in the end (which despite popular evangelical opinion is what they were always intended to do). One of the more interesting characteristics of said narratives, especially the pop-culture variety, is the ever-present hero, most often the man who holds it all together…who saves not just the day, but the world…the future. Yet one post-apocalyptic narrative marvelously deconstructs this motif, George R. Stewart’s classic novel, Earth Abides (1949).
The novel opens as the lead character, Isherwood “Ish” Williams is on a research expedition in the hills of northern California. He’s a geology graduate student at Cal Berkeley, and, while out exploring one day, he is bitten by a poisonous snake. He manages to get himself back to his cabin and treat himself whereupon he quickly passes out for several days. He comes to to find a world completely changed. A virus has wiped out nearly the entire world’s population and only he and a few survivors remain. Early in the novel, Ish travels across the country and back only to find a few communities of survivors huddled together. Upon returning home, he takes a partner and they have children, band together with other survivors, couple their children, and build something of a community in the Bay Area. This is about all that “happens” in the novel, yet it is filled with immeasurable insight, most notably in Ish’s plans to re-boot civilization after the “fall.”
Keep in mind that Stewart is writing in the late ’40s with all the technology germane to that time. Just a reminder for all of our younger readers, there were grocery stores, canned goods, and cars then. Ish has all the illusions in the world of preserving civilization, and not only preserving it, but improving it too. Yet he spends far more time in thinking about these ideas than actually enacting them. This simultaneously is and is not a spoiler, but civilization goes to shit by the time Ish’s grand-kids arrive. Not only can his children barely read, but they even begin to speak in a clipped version of English. Rather than using their best efforts to raise crops and cattle for food, they lackadaisically partake of all the canned goods available in the Bay Area grocery stores. Instead of learning mechanics (after all they’re next to the Cal library with its immeasurable wealth of intellectual resources), they use abandoned cars until they’re rusted out or have flat tires.
I could talk about more of what “happens” without ruining the experience of reading Stewart’s brilliant work, because the events aren’t nearly as important or effective as Ish’s reflections upon them. Stewart writes with a palpable severity, and, unbeknownst to him, his warnings are more applicable now than ever. Throughout the novel, he interweaves third-person accounts of the world after the virus, with a first-person account of the events, most likely Ish’s voice if he happened to be keeping a journal that an alien-life form or future human might find centuries later. Stewart writes, “During then thousand years [humanity’s] numbers have been on the upgrade in spite of wars, pestilences, and famines. This increase in population has become more and more rapid. Biologically, man has for too long a time been rolling an uninterrupted run of sevens” (8). Later, his description of Ish: “Then suddenly he gave a quick start, and he realized that he had again a will to live! At least, if he could be no more a participant, he would be a spectator, and a spectator trained to observe what was happening” (25). Unfortunately, despite all his desires for the future of civilization, this is exactly what Ish becomes…a spectator.
Yet, this thought-provoking read essentially asks us what we would have done differently? What exactly could we do if this happened in our world? The technological “improvements” and highly specialized labor that have increasingly defined our experiences since the time of Stewart’s writing just might hasten the devolution that he, perhaps accurately, predicted “way back” in 1949.