Thursday, 3 April 2014

Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides is the story of the almost extinction of the human race due to a deadly contagion, and the eventual rebirth on human civilisation. Said to be at the head of the Post-Apocalypse novel family tree, the book follows the path of a Californian man and his attempts to continue civilisation in any way that he can.

When Isherwood Williams emerges from his geographical studies in the Californian mountains and he returns to find the town deserted, dogs roam the streets, cars line the sides of the roads and all the newspapers re dates two weeks ago. Foraging for his food and making use of the city's stores of electricity and water, Ish considers himself fairly well suited to isolation. Socially awkward, a bit introverted, prone to spending weeks alone in the mountains and even minus appendix; he seems the ideal candidate for "last man alive". Seeing as there is nobody to prevent him from doing so, Isherwood decides to take a road trip across America, heading for New York, Chicago and other big cities to see how many stragglers make up the remainder of the human race and to decide what to do with the rest of his life...

Upon his return (plus canine friend), Isherwood establishes "the tribe"- an assortment of friendly local people, strangers initially, that establish a comfortable but simple way of life amongst the empty streets of the town. Living communally and making decisions together, the old world adults build a stable but isolated community. As their community is swelled by children and grandchildren, Isherwood tries his hardest to keep 'civilisation' alive, trying to promote reading, democracy and practical skills.

The novel raises some interesting questions about religion and the skillset and legacy of mankind. Isherwood, one of the last remaining Americans, is a professor and so values learning, books and academic pursuits. His children and grandchildren don't- they fidget through school and want to run wild outside. It makes the reader wonder 0from which stage in human history the second era of humanity might have resumed if the group had had different skills, or if it was composed of other randomly spared individuals. A farmer, for example might have continued from the stage of the agricultural revolution, advancing the community by several thousand years. As it is, humanity returned in San Francisco to a hunter gatherer lifestyle- scavenging for tins and dry goods and relying upon what was left behind from the 1940s and resorting later to hunting for cattle and mountain lions.

Isherwood actively scorns religion throughout, scoffing at the children's primitive superstitions and their half made, improvised belief systems- he believes new humanity will be better off without religion. The construction of new systems of belief is something that the book observes and wonders at frequently. Isherwood is stunned and intrigued by what appears to be an entire religious system, complete with gods and holy symbols germinating in the consciousness of those born after the disaster. Its culmination at the end of the book is almost tragic- Isherwood has truly become the last American and now he has no control over what comes afterwards, or how others will remember him in the future...

There are some really beautiful descriptions throughout this book- simple but evocative. The empty glass and concrete of New York's deserted skyscrapers, the musky silence of the University library and the precious knowledge and human history that it preserves, the gradual decay of the human world as nature reclaims the country. The shepherd free sheep roaming the fields and the re-establishment of a natural food chain. The Golden Gate Bridge looms over the tribe's settlement, reminding all who remember of the once great capabilities of the human race. It's quite a powerful thought- the hard work and progression of almost two million years lost in two generations.

Though it is not a pacey book by any means, I really enjoyed this novel. Isherwood is an interesting protagonist, and the reader really gets to understand him and the motivation behind his behaviour. His frustration at his inability to steer his tribe in the direction that he thinks best is understandable, and his persistence is impressive, his decisions often difficult. It's easy to become invested in his survival and the survival of the tribe, though none of its members are characterised enormously. There's something about the isolated community living off the land that really appeals to me. Bring on the demise of the human race.

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