Homer's Travels: Book: George R. Stewart's "Earth Abides"

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Book: George R. Stewart's "Earth Abides"

I finished my fifth book of the year. Not the most impressive considering I haven't been working for the last 8 1/2 months and should have plenty of free time to dive into books. I think I'm a victim of cable TV and the Intertubes. Another thing that has happened this year is I seem to have a habit of clustering similar books together. Earlier this year I read "The World Is Flat " and soon afterward I read a similar book, "Three Billion New Capitalists: The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East ", that was a little less positive on the whole globalization thing but it was similar enough that I didn't even post about it. Another example was "The Road " and my current read, George R. Stewart's "Earth Abides".

Both "The Road" and "Earth Abides" tell the story of a post-apocalyptic world. "The Road" 's disaster is kept a mystery. "Earth Abides" 's begins with a virulent, flu-like disease that wipes out all but a handful of people. The main character, Isherwood "Ish" Williams is one of the survivors. He doesn't witness the chaos of the disaster as he is in an isolated cabin somewhere near his San Francisco home. The book follows Ish's trip across a dead United States and back before meeting a woman, Em, who becomes his wife. Soon afterward a small group comes together near Ish's home.

The small group of seven adults grows in size as children are born. Stewart follow's Ish's vain attempts at keeping civilization alive. As time goes by and systems, such as water distribution, breakdown, Ish despairs as the group, known as the Tribe, lose more and more. Eventually Ish realizes that this is a loosing battle and decides to use game playing to give the future generation basic tools for hunting (Bow and Arrow) and gives up on the old trappings of civilization.

While this could have been a dark, sad story similar to "The Road", it ends on a hopeful note. While the old civilization and all the knowledge that it was built upon is lost, the spark of a new one is seen being born.

I found the book to be a little bland. It seems all too easy for Ish and the Tribe. I expected more challenges and interesting solutions. I find it a little hard to believe that over 20 years after the disaster, there is still edible food in cans and bottles. I would think that canned food would go bad long before then. The one thing that kept me reading is the interesting perspective of the author. "Earth Abides" was published in 1949. This is one of the older science fiction books I have read. It was interesting to see a glimpse of a world before the interstate highway system (Route 66!) and birth control. Every now and then I would ask why they didn't do something or other and then realize that it hadn't been invented yet. I think the 'niceness' of the book and the ease of the survival of the tribe is a result of the times the book was written. The war is over and the United States is the strongest nation. It is at the beginning of a very prosperous period. At the same time the horror of Nuclear War is beginning to raise it's head. Makes you wonder what the dark, depressing "The Road" tells of our outlook today.

I've read better. I was surprised since many of the reviewers really liked it. I was entertained but it just wasn't exciting enough for me to recommend.


  1. Interesting to see that lots of science fiction books are based on dystopian or post apocalyptic worlds. As if authors are keen to think that this is our *fate*. Then again, who is interested in perfect worlds?

    "The Road" looks similar to Stephen King's "The Stand" by the way.

  2. Gany: I haven't read "the Stand". Not mush of a Steven King fan. I think people prefer reading about people in worse situations than they are. Makes them feel better I guess.

  3. I'm not either. This is the only one I've read so far. Considering what you said, I don't have this approach. Actually, it's far more interesting to imagine what lies ahead in the future, even if it means reading about some plague or major disaster.

  4. Gany: I agree. I almost exclusively read science fiction and my motivation is similar to yours - to imagine what lies ahead.

    As for dystopian fiction - I've had my fill for a while. I think I'll read something more positive next.