Published by Del Rey
April 2006 (original pub date: 1949)
Trade Paperback 345 Pages
A barren earth, with a decimated population, and a society on the fringes of survival – this has become one of the clichés of Speculative Fiction. However, when George R. Stewart published Earth Abides in 1949 he was establishing what would become the cliché. For that alone, the novel is a classic; but Stewart’s bleak tale is as relevant today as when it was initially published. Even though the source of society’s breakdown in the novel is alluded to being a flu or biological in nature, the Cold War paranoia likely inspired the backdrop. Very often this novel is depressing, while at other times, signs of hope can bee seen, on the whole, this is a powerful and emotional tale.
Stewart charts the journey of protagonist Isherwood “Ish” Williams as he walks out of his log cabin to discover an empty world. Written from the third person narrative, the novel still gives the feel of reading somebody’s journal. The first quarter of the novel deals with Ish’s journey across the barren country, from his home State of California, to New York, back to California. Stewart conveys the utter bleakness and devastation the country suffers.
The remainder of the novel follows Ish acquiring a dog, meeting a woman, and eventually forming a society, of sorts, in the house in which he grew up as a child. This was an interesting parallel to the greater themes of the novel and how we return to what we once were. As The Tribe, Ish and his friend’s name for their close-knit group of survivors call themselves, grows and evolves, their acceptance of the world is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel.
From the Old Times survivors like Ish and his wife Eve to the children born in this new world, much of their action and interaction can be seen in future novels depicting a post-apocalyptic world. Perhaps the novel with the most recognizable debt to Stewart’s classic is another book which has become a classic itself – Stephen King’s The Stand. From the devastating superflu, to the barren and lifeless husk which civilization has become, there are a number of parallels between the books.
However, unlike most post-apocalyptic fiction that has come to characterize the genre in other media, there are no mutants, no warring tribes. I think the most refreshing aspect of this classic novel is just how human an approach Stewart applied to this story. For the most part, the characters are empathetic, and easily relatable. It is good to see Del Rey reprinting this landmark work of the genre, it really is a worthy reprint. As a work of Science Fiction and as a work of Literature, Earth Abides is a powerful story that set a standard for both the genre as a whole, and as a work that influenced a subset of the genre.
© 2006 Rob H. Bedford