The story starts out with Ish hiking somewhere in the mountains in the Bay Area when he’s bitten by a rattlesnake. He grows ill, floating in and out of consciousness, eventually developing a measles-like illness. After a few weeks, Ish makes a good recovery, heads down the hill only to discover that most people in the Bay Area — along with everyone else in the world — have died from an illness similar to the one he contracted.
A little over 60 years after it was originally published, George Stewart’s Earth Abides still holds its own despite using plot devices that may seem a little clichéd in today’s zombie-hunting litscape. Like so many stories part of this genre, Earth Abides uses the disaster to artfully comment on the prevailing issues of the time. In this case it was racial tension during Jim Crow. Stewart subtly weaves his observations about racial inequality into the story by contrasting the old way of doing things with the new situation faced by Ish and the disparate group of survivors. Ish, a white man, meets and eventually marries Emma, an African American woman — a taboo that matters much less when the only surviving people are faced with extinction.
All of that said, Earth Abides isn’t perfect. Ish is a hipster in grad school. He’s studying ecology and considers himself an observer of mankind. In this new world, he sees himself as an intellectual leader. He constantly makes mental lists about why he’s better equipped than those he meets along the way for the new rules of the new world in which he lives. Ish spends most of his life agonizing over how he alone can rebuild the great civilization that once was America since, in his opinion, not one person in his tiny community has the intellectual capacity to fry an egg. Throughout the novel, Emma is a source of strength and courage to everyone in the community — Ish included. Yet her relationship with Ish is marked by his silent condescending thoughts about her inability to offer ideas for how to improve things or make progress in their new society. The level of navel gazing and condescension Ish engaged in made me hope a mountain lion would eat him.
Although there is a traditional third-person narrator telling the story, Stewart also relies on swaths of quoted passages from literature to illustrate Ish’s state of mind, hopes, and grief over the fading idea of America as a symbol of greatness in the world. At first, these passages add depth to Ish’s feelings of isolation since it appears he’s the only sober, unbroken man in Berkeley the moment he discovers everyone he knows is dead. But toward the end of the novel, it feels like Stewart uses the passages as a crutch to explain Ish’s feelings of growing old in a world so utterly different than the one he had imagined or expected for himself. These italicized passages mar the last quarter of the novel, and more often than not are a few pages long.
I didn’t love the book, but I’d recommend it. It’s considered a science fiction classic with an International Fantasy Award under its belt. Earth Abides is just one of those novels constantly listed as a classic in the post-apocalyptic literature genre. It’s worth a read if you have time, but if there’s something more pressing, Earth Abides is not the stop everything you’re doing and devour this book right now kind of story.
Rating: Two Sharktopuses and half a Gatoroid.