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Book Review: Earth abides — more than seven decades after George R. Stewart's traumatic novel

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

“Earth Abides” | By George R. Stewart | First published in 1949 | Del Ray | Paperback | 345 pages

Illustration by Jon Williams, Dignity City

Review by Joe Martin

Contributing Writer

“The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.”

Thus begins Edgar Allen Poe’s famous tale of a rampaging disease, “The Masque of the Red Death.” A powerful prince has invited select men and women to join him in one of his “castellated abbeys” where they revel within fortified walls presumably isolated safely from the deadly pestilence. But the formidable abode cannot keep out infection and all are vanquished in the end.

Visions of plagues, carnage and apocalypse have been grist for many literary minds over the centuries. The Ten Plagues of Egypt punished Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In his history of the Peloponnesian War the ancient chronicler Thucydides told of the plague of Athens, probably an outbreak of typhus. In his “Decameron,” Giovanni Boccaccio portrays the flight of 10 people who escape Florence during the time of the Black Death and while away their self-imposed exile telling stories. Daniel Defoe rendered the pain and confusion of 17th Century England’s bubonic plague in “A Journal of the Plague Year.” Mary Shelley imagined a world devastated by a pandemic in her novel “The Last Man.”

The list of other reputed authors who have meditated on the threat and challenge of disease is impressive: Thomas Mann, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sinclair Lewis, Albert Camus, Canadian physician Daniel Kalla, and Stephen King have explored the theme in their fiction. Walter Miller’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz” remains a perennially compelling depiction of the reconstructive efforts of those survivors amidst the detritus of nuclear war. In “Always Coming Home,” Ursula Le Guin explores the social and anthropological dimensions of people living so far beyond an undesignated catastrophe that there is barely a memory of history long past. Other dystopian visions in the aftermath of apocalypse have been limned by Cormac McCarthy in “The Road” and Jim Crace in “The Pesthouse.”

George R. Stewart’s name should be more widely known. In the course of his long life he wrote a wealth of books on a remarkable range of subjects. A longtime fixture at University of California, Berkeley he penned works of history, biography, place names, ecology, the western landscape as well as a few works of fiction, such as “Storm.” In that story — considered the first ecological novel — Stewart names the fearsome tempest “Maria,” which he pronounced Ma-Rye-a. The tale inspired the National Weather Service beginning in 1953 to give names to catastrophic weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy. Among Stewart’s friends were illustrious literati such as Wallace Stegner, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost and Civil War historian Bruce Catton.

Stewart made only one foray into the realm of science fiction: “Earth Abides.” It was published in 1949. Over the years it has achieved cult status and has never gone out of print. It was republished two years ago with a laudatory introduction by contemporary sci-fi doyen Kim Stanley Robinson.

Grad student Isherwood “Ish” Williams is alone doing field work in the Sierra Nevada. He is bitten by a rattlesnake but endures the ordeal and recovers. On leaving the mountains he soon becomes aware that something big and ominous has taken place while he was isolated in the wild. Although he had not been away very long the virulence upending society had proceeded with lethal celerity. He reads a report in a week-old newspaper that the United States had been “overwhelmed by the attack of some new and unknown disease of unparalleled rapidity of spread, and fatality.” Ish knows nothing of what became of family and friends, all now gone utterly. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of what has happened Ish “felt the deep desperation of the solitary survivor of a shipwreck, alone in all the vastness.”

Graphically Stewart details the unsettling sense of loneliness and existential dread experienced by Ish as he is confronted by vertiginous change. Everything is different. Animals untamed and domestic are reconfiguring patterns of behavior and survival now that human beings are scarce. Stewart had consulted with a number of professional friends and colleagues to get their thoughts on what the sudden erasure of modern human society would portend for any human survivors. Elaborate systems like the electrical grid and the public fresh water supply would not fall immediately into disrepair and desuetude. But in time they would. And in this story, they do. Eventually the lights go out and tap water is no longer flowing. At first there is plenty of canned food on the shelves of grocery stores. But all the things that had been a part of modern life would be rusting away and disappearing over time. Ish decides that he is going to try to make his way in this new disconcerting order of things. He sets off by his still functional automobile for the east coast to see what he can see.

There are a few others who have somehow remained alive, immune from the pestilence. Ish does not feel very committed to any people he has encountered on his journey. He returns to his home in California. Eventually he meets a woman of mixed race, Em, who becomes his wife. A few other adults show up and a community Ish calls The Tribe forms slowly. Children are born and the rudiments of a new society begin to take shape. Ish comes to realize that his hope to restore the framework of the world he knew before the cataclysm is an impossible wish. Old ways of pre-modern survival already begin to manifest. The young have no inclination for academics. The Tribe’s children cannot imagine the richly populated and teeming technological world of the past.

It is probable that Stewart read a novella by Jack London, which was published in 1915 when Stewart was 10 years old. London’s “The Scarlet Plague” would seem to have provided an outline upon which Stewart elaborated and embellished. London envisioned his loimic catastrophe happening in the San Francisco area in 2013. A physically enfeebled old man who was once a UC Berkeley professor is in the company of his grandson and two other boys. All are bedecked in animal skins. Like the children of Ish’s Tribe these youths have reverted to the pre-modern. The old man tells them: “You are true savages.” Unlike Ish who arrives on a post-apocalyptic scene after much of the devastation had already occurred, London’s old man describes the collective chaos, panic, desperation and social dissolution that mounts as the plague took its mortal toll. “All law and order had ceased.” He muses: “The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization.”

In preparation for writing “Earth Abides” Stewart studied Hebrew in order to deeply appreciate the world, language, and culture of the Old Testament and its historical time. The name “Ish” means “Man” in Hebrew. “Em” means “Mother.” Indeed, Ish and Em are the founders of a new world aborning. And here is an interesting bit of linguistic serendipity: In 1911, the last member of the Yahi Indian Tribe in California came out of hiding and presented himself to white society with the expectation that he might be killed. Thankfully, that did not happen. The story of this indigenous man’s remarkable interaction with a world radically different from anything he had known previously was sensitively portrayed by Theodora Kroeber — the mother of Ursula Le Guin — in her book “Ishi in Two Worlds.” It was the custom of his tribe not to share one’s birth name. So he was called Ishi which means “Man” in the Yana Indian tongue. He died from tuberculosis in 1916. Stewart must have known of this native man Ishi and his story before he wrote “Earth Abides.”

In 1951, Stewart was awarded the first International Fantasy Award for his only sci-fi novel. It has won adulation from diverse quarters. Jimi Hendrix’s furious instrumental “Third Stone from the Sun” was ignited by Stewart’s tale. Composer Philip Aaberg was moved to write “Sound Track for Earth Abides.” Stephen King acknowledged Stewart’s novel as nurturing the kernel of the idea for his tome “The Stand,” about a global pandemic. Stewart’s friend Wallace Stegner gave tribute to “Earth Abides” asserting it “is a fascinating book, as compelling in its development as ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ It is very shrewd in its knowledge of how long, slow, and painful is the development of civilization; how dependent upon perception, invention, luck, cooperation, organization, memory, communication; how vulnerable.”

The ravenous impact of the influenza of 1918 killed tens of millions of people around the globe. Its mysterious and shocking eruption moved many to fear the world might be ending. Then the disease dissipated as quickly as it had come. It was not until many decades later that medical science achieved a comprehensive grasp of that calamity. In our time of Covid and its variants humanity is again reminded of nature’s indifferent potential for widespread virulence and disruption.

In 2007, journalist Alan Weisman published his collection of scenarios about Earth bereft of human beings, entitled “The World Without Us.” Nowhere in the text is Stewart’s yarn of pestilential apocalypse mentioned, but on page 376 “Earth Abides” is listed in the Select Bibliography. The last sentence of Stewart’s story reads “Men go and come, but earth abides.” Taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Weisman concludes his book echoing Stewart stating, “Without us, Earth will abide and endure, without her, however, we could not even be.”

George Stewart died on August 22, 1980. “Earth Abides” lives on.

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