A disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of the globe, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he ultimately discovers will prove far more astonishing than anything he'd either dreaded or hoped for. NOTE: This 60th anniversary edition of Earth Abides includes a special introduction written and read by Hugo Award-winning writer Connie Willis.
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Earth Abides is one of the most important books I have ever read. This is not an adventure novel or a thriller. There are no zombies and no roaming bands of cannibals. Instead, its focus is on the Earth in the wake of humanity's destruction and on the remaining humans who inhabit this bleak new world. It is a carefully honed experiment in anthropology and sociology. Its depth and complexity is astounding and it deserves to be ranked as one of the best novels of the twentieth century. It can be boring at times but it is truly brilliant, beautiful, sad, terrifying, and entirely worth the trouble. And the narrator is excellent and adds enormous value to the story.
The main character, Isherwood "Ish" Williams, watches as the world of man falls apart. He is an intellectual and an anxious man who fears that his tribe of survivor's easy lifestyle, thriving on the remains of the past, will cause humanity to revert into a primitive state. Ish takes upon himself the burden of maintaining human knowledge, building new traditions, a new state, and even a new civilization. His tribe, on the other hand, is content to live in an idyllic world where food is plentiful, disease is unknown, and there is little to fear.
Much of the novel is Ish's internal dialogue and the narrative tends to veer off on tangents. I occasionally found myself lost and had no idea what the author was talking about. And Stewart's attention to detail often gives the reader the sense that something is about to happen when, in fact, nothing does. Then there are other passages that the reader knows are going nowhere, such as the description of scenery, and reading feels like a chore.
Despite its flaws, Earth Abides is filled with so much wisdom regarding human psychology and the state of man in nature and in civilization, that it should be required reading for any college student studying sociology, anthropology, or even political science. This is a novel that I will remember forever.
Post-apocalyptic fiction is my favorite genre. So many aspects of the story of the world after civilization captivate me, that I always find something fascinating in every telling. In this novel, Stewart's real novelty and strength is in the observations of the end of the world through a thoroughly scientific mind. Bonus points for waxing philosophic and providing unexpectedly thoughtful details.
Stewart shines in his detailed symphony of decay-- he gives thought to infrastructure and nature and mankind themselves. It is a long journey, and I understand how some people could find the book tedious. I enjoyed the plodding pace because so often it sent my mind to wander in new directions.
The book has several minor flaws, and a couple of unforgivable flaws:
The minor flaws involve the scientific details like failing to realize that gasoline goes stale after a time, Ish's failure to ever experience grief of any kind, and the complete omission of what happened to the hundreds of millions of corpses that should have been lying around.
The first major flaw that very nearly ruined the book for me was Ish's and the Tribe's thoroughly unrealistic failure to educate their children. This flaw is so central to the story that had I been in a different mood, I may just as easily have given this book a rating as low as two stars.
Here's the problem: Ish, a man of superior intellect, is surrounded by adults who are not as smart as he is-- but beyond their failure to qualify as intellectuals themselves, they actively laugh at Ish's repeated pleas to steer the Tribe and it's children back towards a civilized life style.
Even this unlikely reaction may have been believable had the author justified it with dialog, and laid the fault firmly at the feet of the idiot Tribe adults. But that never happens. Ish never delivers a compelling argument to the group. He never gets outraged with them.
Nor are the other Tribe adults ever described as insufferable morons-- instead we are repeatedly reminded that they are all just average folks. As if average folks wouldn't care that they were letting the torch of civilization burn out?!
Anyway, the author quickly writes away about 20 years, noting some landmarks along the way-- and so it is almost easy to miss the fact that 20 years is a long, long, long time. Plenty of time to educate children. Plenty of time to realize that not educating the children is a ridiculously stupid failure. Plenty of time to encounter problem after problem after problem, whose solutions could easily be found in books, which future generations really should know how to read.
So we have the impotent Ish, and the other Tribe adults sitting around, doing nothing but breeding ignorant offspring. Even when basic plumbing and water supplies fail, the adults are unmoved. Never mind that they could set up cisterns, or move to an area with a hand-pump well to get fresh water. Oh, and rather than fill toilet tanks manually from a bucket or something, or rig a clever plumbing solution, they choose to use outhouses instead. Yeah. Right.
Eventually Ish decides that way to educate the young is to teach them basic hunter-gatherer skills, so that when civilization's scraps are used up, they'll be able to survive on their wits. So, what does he do? He teaches them how to make bows and arrows, and how to start fires from scratch... and ... that's it. He teaches them literally nothing else. Nothing about farming, metallurgy, medicine, weather prediction (seriously, he doesn't even teach them how to use the barometer that he is hold), etc.
The Tribe breeds like bunnies, with every generation getting more ignorant. Ish notices that they are becoming superstitious, and losing skepticism and critical thinking skills. He attempts to fix the problem for a total of one minute, decides it's hopeless, and subsequently spends the rest of his life reinforcing the idea that his hammer is magical and that he is a god. He makes no attempt to explain scientific method-- arguably the one concept that could save the future from hundreds or thousands of years of ignorance.
The other major flaw in the novel was that there were clearly a lot of humans still alive, but the Tribe never seeks to join them. Early in the novel Ish found dozens of people without too much effort. Now, Ish's goal was to keep civilization alive. To that end, the obvious first step is to gather enough people together that they can start to specialize. In little groups, all you can really worry about is feeding yourself, but in larger groups, you can designate farmers to do the cultivating, and you can have other members of society do useful things like restore a power plant, learn medicine, TEACH CHILDREN HOW TO READ, and so on. This idea is never even mentioned by the author.
In Stewart's small view of the world, Ish is the "Last American"-- while as a reader I can enjoy the novel's ending only if I imagine that just a few hundred miles away a sizable group of humans have gathered and managed to keep their children educated. I choose to imagine that one day they will run into Ish's bow & arrow-wielding descendants, and mow them down with machine gun fire.