Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949) 312 p.

Post-apocalyptic stories typically come in two flavours. There’s the type which follows survivors through the catastrophe itself and covers their attempts to stay alive, scrabbling for resources in an emptied world, eating out of cans and scavenging vehicles and firearms. Then there’s the type which takes place generations after the collapse, in which society has reverted to a tribal state, cities are crumbling and overgrown with vegetation, and the artifacts of the past are revered or treated with superstition.

Earth Abides, one of the earlier example of post-apocalyptic science fiction (it was published in 1949), is an interesting novel because it bridges the gap between these two societies. Isherwood Williams is a university student in his early 20s who is bitten by a rattlesnake while hiking in the mountains outside San Francisco. Spending a few days delirious with poison in a mountain cabin, he emerges to find that virtually the entire human race has been wiped out by a deadly plague.

Stewart handwaves the plague itself; all the evidence Ish finds of the disaster suggests that people quietly and orderly died in bed or in hospitals. Earth Abides is very much a post-apocalyptic novel rather an an apocalyptic novel. Ish drives all over the United States in the aftermath of the disaster, exploring and examining, before eventually returning to San Francisco. He finds a woman and settles down, and before long they gather a few other survivors and begin having children. The book is divided into three parts: the first in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the second 22 years later when a new generation has grown up but the old generation still remembers the past, and the third when Ish is a an old and partly senile man, after “the Tribe” has lost track of the date, which probably takes place around about now. The central part of the book is probably the most critical, as Ish worries about the development of his children and grandchildren and the way they treat the world. Literacy, for example, disappears because the children aren’t interested in learning it. The adults themselves grow too complacent living in the ruins of a great civilisation, where everything is there for the taking, to worry about learning important skills themselves and passing them down through the generations – when the water stops running due to failed pipes, twenty-two years after the disaster, nobody has any idea how to repair them, and they settle for drinking from creeks and building outdoor latrines. Ish often blames the disinterest of the children or the “stupidity” of his fellow-aged survivors, but he’s just as guilty of complacency as the others.

In terms of the style, Earth Abides has elements of both the straight dope, expository science fiction form, and the old-school style you find in a lot of books by authors born in the 19th century – think John Wyndham, though a bit more poetic. It can be odd to adjust to if you go straight from reading something else, but it’s consistent and distinctive, and easy to grow accustomed to. Stewart does a good job of delineating the writing style in the three phases of Ish’s life: first as a man in his early 20s (since I’m also in my early 20s I can consider this to be standard, or default, right?), then as a man in his late 40s who is starting to get crotchety at the ways of the younger generation, and finally as an old man who has difficulty remembering things and slips in and out of lucidity. I also liked the way Ish’s story is intercut, often between paragraphs, with short vignettes describing the way the earth is returning to nature. Apparently Stewart’s examination of ecology in these pieces was quite new at the time, though now, of course, environmentalism is much more a part of the zeitgeist. If there’s a piece of the novel that’s particularly dated, apart from the writing style and dialogue, it’s Stewart’s bright and shining 1940s optimism in technology – the electricity keeps running, unmanned, for several months after the disaster, and even twenty-two years later Ish and his sons manage to get a car running just by replacing the battery, the oil and the tyres. (Something that always bugs me about post-apocalyptic fiction is the use of cars more than a few months after the diaster – petrol goes off within months, and I doubt many survivors would have the foresight to immediately mix a vast quantity of it with preservative. I thought it might be a 1940s leaded petrol thing, before remembering that I first learned that petrol goes off from Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, published in 1951.)

A final note to mention is the real life parallel Stewart draws with another last member of a great civilisation – that of Ishi, generally thought to be the last Native American to live a totally traditional lifestyle, who emerged from Yosemite National Park in 1911. The main character’s name, and the location for most of the novel, are certainly no accident; just as Ishi lived out his days in an unrecognisable world, the last man who remembered anything of his people and their history, so does Isherwood Williams. Civilisations come and go – only the earth abides.

Earth Abides is a very good science fiction novel, quite readable, and examining an area of the genre that, as far as I’m aware, no other book has done since. Despite its age, it remains well worth reading, and will endure as a classic of science fiction.