I still read books, even if I no longer review them for the now-defunct site The Slaughtered Bird. A recent read was George R. Stewart’s novel Earth Abides. Written in 1949, it describes a post-apocalyptic scenario in which graduate student Isherwood Williams (Ish) is bitten by a rattlesnake near a remote cabin, falls ill, and recovers to find that the world’s population has been all but eliminated by a plague of some sort.
Ish wanders the country to see the devastation, then returns home and meets a few other survivors, who become neighbors. It isn’t long before he starts a family, and events proceed from there.
Post-apocalyptic fiction has changed dramatically since Earth Abides; in today’s tales, the focus is generally on survival in the face of outside threats: looters, aliens, zombies, etc. Once immediate survival concerns are addressed, the characters typically attempt to rebuild civilization as it once was, with electricity, running water, a government, etc.
Not so here. Earth Abides is terribly bleak. The survivors become scavengers feeding off the corpse of the industrialized society they squat upon. No one is capable of building anything lasting, or even thinking far enough in the future to identify something as important as alternative water sources. As the protagonist, Ish suffers from a terrible lack of leadership qualities, a problem he recognizes in himself and simply cannot seem to alter in any way. He’s the de facto leader of his tiny community only because there’s no one else with the intelligence, gumption, or inclination to take charge.
The issue of intelligence being an innate, immutable thing is a major theme of the novel: you’re either born smart or you’re born stupid. Ish, being a graduate student, is apparently the smartest person alive, and everyone else is, quite literally, too dumb to learn anything except the most basic survival skills. He even judges his own children to be mentally deficient; all except one, his favorite: a boy named Joey. What makes this interesting is that Ish sees himself as highly intelligent, but is also aware that he lacks the knowledge that would enable him to rebuild civilization himself. He can’t build a house, repair a car, fix the plumbing, or cut out an appendix. What he can do is philosophize and feel superior to the other survivors. In this, I can’t help but think that the author is either satirizing his own academic colleagues as worthless elitists, or putting himself wholly into the character of Ish and exposing his own elitism. Ish knows everything except what he needs to know, and that presents a problem for himself and his Tribe.
Today’s sensitive readers may flap their hands at the author’s treatment of black people in the novel, despite that Ish marries one and the black people, as negatively as they’re portrayed, at least can farm and take care of animals and do all the things necessary to build a proper community. I’d rather live with them.
Earth Abides shows a decidedly pessimistic post-WWII view of humanity, society, and culture, and while it’s not as unrelievedly dark and distressing as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it’s got more than its fair share of hopelessness.