Saturday, June 25, 2005


Earth Abides, An Overview

Photo courtesy of Emily LeBlanc

George R. Stewart's 1949 novel, Earth Abides, tells the story of the de-evolution of America following a plague that wipes out most of the earth's population. The story is told through the eyes of Isherwood Williams, a graduate student working on his thesis, who emerges from the mountains after surviving a rattlesnake bite. Isherwood, or Ish, discovers a new and different world than the one he left behind. His world of books and science has been replaced with one of emptiness and abandonment. Since he had survived, he wondered if there would be others. At the same time, he questioned whether a few survivors would be able to rebuild the world.

Isherwood's quest for survivors and eventual attempt at rebuilding civilization is wonderfully told by George R. Stewart in Earth Abides. This is the only science fiction book written by Stewart but one that has stood the test of time. Georges Dodd states, "What makes Earth Abides vault far above just an excellent science fiction novel is its cross-over with the actual history of California and the issues of humanity it raises." Issues such as ecology, the environment, social structures, and race are all addressed in Stewart's novel. In a 1998 Lost Books review by D. D. Shade he observes, "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."

Considering the time, it was very forward thinking of Stewart to have his protagonist, Ish, develop a strong, loving relationship with Em, an African American woman. Em is out-spoken, strong willed and very capable, all characteristics one would desire in a mate to re-build the world with. In his review, Shade states this relationship demonstrates "that black and white can live together," something that is very obvious today but not as evident in 1949.

We see a similar, though not as long lasting, relationship in The Omega Man between Neville and Lisa. In both situations the women are stronger when they first meet their respective mates. Em and Lisa lead in the initial mating dance and lay the ground rules for their relationships. Once the women are secure in their relationships, they demonstrate more stereotypical characteristics of women found in books and movies. In The Omega Man, Lisa is seen out shopping and looking for pretty things as Neville is arming himself for the final conflict with The Family. While in Earth Abides, Em becomes the mother figure for the Tribe and takes on the role of child-bearer and care-giver.

Another parallel between Earth Abides and The Omega Man is the "leaving [of] a few to rebuild civilization." What is done to prepare the "few" is where the stories differ. Ish prepares the Tribe for the future by teaching them traditional ways of survival; hunting and gathering, and making bows and arrows from what is found in nature, while Neville develops a serum through scientific experimentation to ensure the "few" will survive to carry on. Even though one protagonist abandons science, while the other embraces it, they are both using the past to prepare for the future.

Stewart explores the importance of the relationship between our past and the future throughout Earth Abides with the symbolic use of a four-pound, single-jack hammer. When Ish first discovers the hammer he notes its link to the past, "[Ish] had been extraordinarily pleased when he found the hammer, appreciating that actual link with the past" (7). The hammer, though often used as a practical tool, becomes a part of the Tribe's rituals and traditions. It is this hammer that is used to chisel the number of each passing year on the big rock in the hills. The hammer also sits in a place of honor on the mantel in Ish's home and is viewed by the children of the tribe as something sacred and not to be touched, "The hammer - all the children associated it vaguely with something strange and mystical in the far past! It was used on state occasions; it stood on the mantel by itself. Generally speaking, no one touched it except Ish" (201). When Ish nears the end of his days, he passes the hammer on to Jack to indicate he is the new leader of the Tribe. A tribe that has come full circle, from industrialized to almost stone age. One could argue that, like W. B. Yeats observed in The Second Coming, the end of one cycle in the history of humankind has ended and a new one approaches.

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