First published back in June of 1949, American author George R Stewart’s third fictional novel to be published, entitled ‘Earth Abides’, was received with high acclaim by the public and critics alike, winning the International Fantasy Award in 1951 as well as making the Locus Magazine’s list for best all time fiction both in 1987 and later on in 1998.  The novel’s title refers to the appropriately themed passage “Men go and come, but Earth abides” taken from the Hebrew bible and further referred to within the novel itself.

DLS Synopsis:
In the secluded outback of the Californian mountains, Isherwood Williams (‘Ish’) is holed-up on his own in a remote cabin after being bitten by a rattlesnake.  After administering some well-educated emergency first aid upon himself, and subsequently resting up for a lengthy period, Ish is finally back on the road to recovery.  However, upon leaving the cabin and making his way back towards civilisation, Ish is soon confronted with the unbelievable realisation that the vast majority of the world’s population has been wiped out by a virulent airborne disease (of which Ish developed some symptoms of during his illness in the cabin, but somehow recovered from).

With everywhere now void of human life, Ish goes in a frantic search for any other survivors.  After a long time of fruitless searching, Ish comes across his first fellow survivors, each of which show obvious signs of considerable psychological issues resulting from the trauma of the apocalyptic pandemic.  Ish begins to withdraw from himself, choosing to become somewhat of an observer of the events that have transpired.  This detached stance very-consciously allows for him to psychologically adjust to the situation. 

Whilst continuing his search for other survivors, Ish comes across a dog who he names Princess.  Together the two travel across the country, establishing a greater understanding of how many survivors there are.  Finally, Ish and his canine companion return to the Berkerley area of California where his parents had lived and he had grown up.  Soon enough, Ish meets up with a young woman (marginally older than Ish himself) named Emma.  The two waste no time at all in getting romantically involved with each other.

Before long the two are planning to start a family of their own in this desolate new world.   Over the ensuing years, Ish and Em raise a family of numerous children, attracting other fellow survivors to join their now growing community.  As the years go by, the community take on new traditions and ways of life, each one pulling the community tighter together ensuring for a greater chance of survival.

But following the loss of electricity, the water supply eventually also falls away, leaving the community (now fondly  referred to as ‘The Tribe’) no longer simply living off the remains of the old civilisation.  The survivors must look to re-learning the basic skills of their forefathers if they are to establish a successful beginning for humanity.  But educating, adapting and simply surviving in this new world, with little to no support, is a harder job than they would ever have thought.  The rules of life have changed, and nothing is as easy as it once was...

DLS Review:
The novel is split into three largely unequal parts, with two additional ‘filler passages’ known as the ‘quick years’.  As time passes on, Ish and his community begin the calendar years back from scratch, giving each new year a number and more importantly a name that is used to remember that particular year.  Utilising this as a way in which the passage of time can be recorded but easily skipped through, Stewart is able to detail the development and transpiring events of the community with these aforementioned ‘Quick Years’.  This allows for the tale to span a much greater length of time, showing a broader picture of the survival of mankind.

The principal character of Isherwood Williams is an instantly likeable character that the reader is drawn to identify with from early on.  His characteristics are an obvious reflection of the author’s own personality and traits.  Indeed, Stewart’s previous position as a Berkeley English professor is brought into the tale within the character of Ish, as he repeatedly sets down the importance of education, and to an even greater degree, that of the power of books and the written word.

Stewart begins to carefully examine the social aspects of the new community and how they each take on their own unique roles, adapting to the situation to ensure their own and the entire community’s survival.

The laws of the old are no longer relevant or adhered to.  With new social dynamics to the group now essential for the continued survival of the community, polygamy and marriages are now looked upon as almost a fundamental requirement.

Illnesses and diseases are almost entirely wiped out during the great disaster.  The resulting population fluctuations with the various species, are displayed in horrifying proportions.  First with the ants, then the rats, the mountain lions, cattle and so on.  Each year that passes brings along another threat, with new developments and changes, which the community must take in their stride.  Stewart cleverly dissects the many changes to life for the survivors, portraying a vivid and intensely realistic picture of the new world. 

The novel as a whole is incredibly involved and well-thought through.  Not only are the many physical and practical elements of the pandemic brought out and explored, but so too are the psychological and social aspects (including religion, social responsibility, punishment etc).

The novel carries on, portraying the many years that follow, setting down numerous major events and changes to the community.  Ish’s hopes lie with his favourite son, Joey, which ultimately leads to a heart-wrenching turn of events, putting the tale on its head and leaving the reader shocked and truly saddened.

The tale slowly but surely wraps up in a magnificent walk-through (and commentary on) humanity and its social development.  So many important aspects are touched upon and then embraced further within the tale; each one ultimately drawing towards one man whose life has been detailed to its final moments.

The conclusion is as it should be.  Haunting, powerful, poetic and utterly breathtaking.  From start to finish, ‘Earth Abides’ is a monumental journey through a post-apocalyptic world.  Stewart’s early piece of this type of fiction was a sure inspiration for so many subsequent pieces of post-apocalyptic work.  The most obvious of which is Terry Nation’s series entitled ‘Survivors’ (1975-1977) that incorporates many of the ideas detailed within Stewart’s haunting novel.

The novel runs for a total of 316 pages.

 © DLS Reviews

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