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Earth Abides  
by George R. Stewart  —  Copyright 1949

Review by D. D. Shade   —   June 11, 1998


Had Isherwood Williams lived to see our day, with its social and political decay, he might not have worried so much about "preserving" our culture. As it happens in George R. Stewart's book, the devastating viral plague that cleanses the earth of nearly all human life occurred approximately 50 years ago. Long before the assination of John or Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. Long before the war with Vietnam. Before we put a man on the moon and then cut the space program. Before the pervasion of television and the computer revolution. Before the escalation of the cold war, AIDS, or most of the great serial killers. In other words, Earth Abides takes place in a time that many Americans with gray hair look back upon with nostalgia. The post World War Two years, when those of us between forty and fifty were born. The boomer years. A time of great prosperity. A decade that saw the birth of rock-n-roll and hamburgers.

Yet it was a time of great poverty for some. When restrooms, restaurants, and the seats in public transportation were separated by the color of ones skin. When equal pay for equal work was unheard of and a woman's place was in the home. A time when the word 'communist' was the dirtiest and deadliest thing one could call another. An altogether strange time, know as the fifties.

It is into this world that Isherwood suddenly finds himself alone. Victim of a freak snakebite while out in the wilderness working on his graduate thesis and survivor of an even more freak accident, the development of a viral plague that wipes out humankind in a matter of weeks. It is altogether fitting that someone named Ish, this is how he signed his name to a hand scrawled will while delirious from the snake bite, should find himself alone in the world. Ish, David Pringle tells us , is a direct reference to the historic Ishi, a California Indian who became famous as the last living representative of his tribe. Ish spends at least a quarter of the book searching for others. He finds a few, lucky people with great immune systems, and in the process stumbles upon the woman with whom he shares the remainder of his years. Together they try to build a community and at the same time rebuild civilization, as they had known it. You will have to read the book to learn of Ish's heroic triumphs and failures as he tries to make sure the future has a heritage. Although following the traditional post-apocalyptic formula, that of the earth being cleansed by some means and leaving a few to rebuild civilization, Earth Abides offers some interesting commentary on some central moral questions of our/that time. One of those is racial unrest. Given the nature of European and African American relations in this nation in 1949, Stewart was taking a quite a risk when he developed one particular central character, Em. Ish chooses a strong willed, able, out-spoken, African American woman to be his mate. She was not the first female Ish found, nor was she the best looking, but she had within her the strength to become the mother of a new civilization. Ish recognized this and fell in love with her quickly. And Ish was right, Em alone had the strength and courage to bear the first child in the small community that had grown around them. There was no one who knew how to deliver a baby, and that was frightful enough, but the greatest fear was not knowing if children born into the world would inherit their parents immunity to the plague. Earth Abides is considered a classic by several sources but to my way of thinking, it deserves that exalted position in speculative fiction for having been a forerunner is demonstrating that black and white can live together.

Stewart further shows us how important is the relationship between past and future. He does this symbolically through the vehicle of a 4-pound, single-jack hammer. At the beginning of the book, just before the snakebite, Ish is exploring a cave and finds this hammer. It is the kind miners used in the old days when rock-drills were placed by hand. It is called a single-jack because it can be used with one hand. Ish notes the pleasure he feels when he finds the hammer because of its tie to the past. Even delirious from snake bit, he remembers to take the hammer with him. He keeps it with him throughout the book. As the community grows around Ish and Em, the hammer is used each year to chisel the numbers of the year on a big rock in the hills above where they live. It is always present on the mantel in Ish's living room. And at the end of the book, when Ish has grown old and the younger men, his and other's children, sense that he is ready to pick a new leader for the community, they wait in a circle at his feet for Ish to pick the next leader by giving them the hammer. The importance of tradition to the family and the community is symbolized in the single-jack.

John Clute and Peter Nicholls feel that post-apocalyptic or disaster stories are so popular because they appeal to secret desires we all share: a depopulated world, escape from the constraints of a highly organized industrial society, and the opportunity to prove one's ability to survive. I choose the latter of the three. Post-apocalyptic speculative fiction provides a window from which to view the "stuff" of which humankind is made. The writer of a disaster or holocaust story can pit humans against the worst possible odds. The post-holocaust novel gives us the ability to perform an experiment that in reality would be unethical to put a group of people in hell and record their progress getting out. Earth Abides is a moving, triumphal story of just such a group. No single character in Earth Abides has the stereotypic appeal of Bruce Willis or Nicolas Cage, and yet I came to love them all and worry about their conditions because they were real people. People with many of the same problems and weaknesses I have. People whose actions made me stop and wonder what I would do in the same situation.

Earth Abides is lost. It is lost because it has been crowded out by the glut of novels published each year. When you're talking to someone you just met and you discover they 'love' science fiction, and you ask with great anticipation if they have read Earth Abides, the answer is "No, Should I?". Earth Abides won the International Fantasy Award in 1951, is included in Science Fiction: The 100 Best Books by David Pringle (both editions), was included in Locus Magazine's All Time Best Science Fiction Novels in 1987, and was a Prometheus Hall of Fame Finalist in 1990. My own round of bookstores, I circulate from Borders to Waldens each month, has not turned up a copy although one can be special ordered. It is available at Amazon.com where it has received an average of five stars from readers and it is available in both paper and hardback from Bordors.com. I recommend Earth Abides to you without reservation.

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Comments from Readers

        Please consider "The End of Eternity" by Asimov for a future review -- I know it doesn't seem like Asimov books would ever be lost, but what with the focus and popularity of his "Robot", "Empire" and "Foundation" books, this independent, out-of-"continuity" gem I think qualifies as a lost book.
Thanks much.
        PS: I had always hoped this book would trickily enter "continuity" with a future novel revealing the the Eternals beyond the time-barrier were in fact robots manipulating time to create an all-human universe to protect humanity in accordance with the "Zeroth Law" of Robotics. Ah well, I do miss the Good Doctor.

-- David Payne

        Wow... a thoughtful review of a classis SF novel. There are a lot of gems out there. I'm particularly interested in Ward Moore's work, and I know he wrote an alternative history novel called "Bring the Jubilee" - but I've never been able to find it.
        Back to your review. The choice of "Ish" as Isherwood's name is also interesting because "Ish" means "man" in Hebrew. So there is a connection not only with Native American legend, but with the nation of Israel.
        One small nitpick: Oreo cookies predate the 1940's by several decades. I think they've been around since the early 1900's, actually.

-- Elisson1@aol.com

        Well, I'd enjoy reviewing some old favorites ... F'r instance, does anyone still read "More Than Human" by Theodore Sturgeon? Fine, delicate, character-driven book ... Or, "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" by Kate Wilhelm ... or even any C.L.Moore, H. Kuttner, Cordwainer Smith, Leigh Brackett ...???? So many sweet wonderful books and stories falling backwards into the past with petty contemporary writers peeping about composing selfconscious selfreferential narratives ... Only a few like Nina Kiriki Hoffman and Octavia Butler and OSCard straightforwardly telling stories ...

-- David Payne

        I just read your review of Earth Abides. I read that book about 16 years ago. It was assigned reading for an Early American History class that I was taking. The teacher made comparisons between the building of a civilization in the book to the colonization of the New World. I don't really remember too much of the story except that I liked it very much. I'm lucky enough to own a copy though, so I'll have to go back and read it again!

-- Janice L. Kato

        I read this many years ago and it still haunts me. It was a great read and I'll read it again someday after I get through with Scott Card.

-- Barbra Wynkoop

        FYI, I finished reading "Bring the Jubilee" but have not yet written a review. It's a fascinating book... it reminds me, in some respects, of L. Sprague de Camp's classic short story, "Aristotle and the Gun," in which a well-intentioned time traveler sets out to change history and introduce the concept of the scientific method to Aristotle. His hope is that the Age of Enlightenment can be made to arrive earlier. Needless to say, things do not work out as planned. Like "Bring the Jubilee," the story is written as a flashback, by a time traveler who has created an alternate universe, but in de Camp's story, the narrator is anything but pleased with the world he created.
        It would be interesting to see what Scott Card would do with an alternate- world story centering about a different Civil War outcome. I don't really expect him to do anything of the sort, seeing as how this vein has been mined pretty thoroughly. His "Pastwatch" novel, which also deals with the idea of deliberately creating an alternate version of history, is, IMHO, one of the best treatments of the subject I've ever read... one of the few such books to actually bring a tear to my eye...and make me wish the world was other than it is.

-- Elisson1@aol.com

        Thanks for kindling a memory. I read Earth Abides years ago. Found it in a dusty used book store. I remember the few scenes you highlighted in your Lost Books column. You make me want to search it out again but I'll probably need to get a new dust mask.

-- Mark

Dear Mr Shade
        I was so pleased to find your review of the almost forgotten lost book, "Earth Abides" by George R Stewart. I first read the paperback in about 1965 and have never forgotten the story. Many times I compare novels or screenplays with elements that I remember from its pages. Perhaps the time has come for a treatment in another medium? Such as a stageplay or even a filmscript? Well, at least we can entertain the idea...
        You have prompted me to delve into the saga again, hopefully with a more mature perspective than before. The copy I kept had grown rather dog-eared from repeated readings, however if you would care to share its contents with your students let me know. Also if you know of any other books writtten by George Stewart I'd like to hear from you.

-- Bruce Wayne Priebe

Mr. Shade,
        I read a battered paperback copy of _Earth Abides_ when I was 14 (which is more years ago than I'll comfortably admit ;-). It has influenced my life ever since. I consider it one of the best post-apocolyptic stories ever written - although as an adult I disagree with many if Ish's techniques to preserve civilization in the next generation. Whenever I drive through our fair land (which is as often as I'm able), I try to visualize what it would look like in Ish's world. I'd love to see a strictly scientific projection (as with the road systems, animals who survived, etc.) as our country is now. How well would Earth abide today?
        I've told people about this book for years, but lost my copy when my parents' house burned several years ago. I must have been incredibly fortunate because, when I went into my local second-hand book store (after finding the author's name which I'd forgotten) I walked straight to the S's in the SF section and there was yet another battered paperback copy. My husband read it for the first time and was, like me, forever changed by it. What an exceptional vision, what an exceptional novel.
        Thanks for sharing this with a future generation,

-- Meg Beach

        I read your three reviews on OSC's page. It's nice to know that people are still searching for and reading out of print SF; that seems to have dramatically declined in the last ten years.
        I thought you might like to know that www.scifi.com had an audio production of "Earth Abides" up recently.
        Also, in addition to bibliofind, two other mega sources for older books are: http://www.interloc.com/ and http://www.abebooks.com/

-- Michael G. Pfefferkorn

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