Monday, August 22, 2011

The Post-Apocalypse as Process: Reviewing EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart

EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart
Paperback, 368 pp. With an Introduction by Connie Willis,
Del Rey 2006. (Originally published 1949)

Cover of original Random House 1949 edition.
Love, love, love that old pulp paperback cover art
even if it doesn’t match up with the text inside,
which it most certainly doesn’t here.

I’ve been a fan of post-apocalypse fiction since childhood so it surprised me to discover this 1949 novel at this late date. Given its age I note that many have dared call it “classic,” though that tends to bring me back to the question as to why I hadn’t heard of the book until now.  

Granted, George R. Stewart‘s Earth Abides isn’t perfect, and the negative reviews on Amazon raise strong points I’ll need to address as I go along. For now I wish to invite you, Dear Reader, to bask in the amazing outside-the-box thinking that produces an End of the World scenario so unlike the one expected by a reading public barely four years removed from the radioactive fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What takes down humanity is neither fire nor ice, but disease.

Sadly, this is an original conceit only in the context of Harry S. Truman’s post-atomic America. In 1912 Jack London wrote a story called “The Scarlet Plague, in which a mysterious disease wipes out 99% of humanity, leaving everyone else to form tribes by way of survival.

Having re-read “The Scarlet Plague” I also can’t help feeling that London had the clearer view, that the survivors and their descendants will find themselves ruled by the most ruthless and clever of the remaining alpha males, and that technology will be rapidly re-adopted once those alphas realize how technology (in this case, gunpowder) can be used to terrorize and subjugate other tribes. 

George R. Stewart, however, as befits a man who wrote notable books about the life-cycles of storms and wildfires, is fascinated by Process. It is Stewart’s fascination, and the thinking he applies to it, that makes Earth Abides such an absorbing and worthwhile read. 

The story opens with a brief, italicized passage fulfilling the role of Greek chorus, filling in the metaphorical forest for the reader that our main character can’t see for his own personal and physical limitations. In this case it’s the so-classic-it’s-clich├ęd Final Broadcast from the U.S. government letting us know that It’s Over. The feds are telling the surviving military personnel to report to the authorities in the states they’re in but it’s a reasonable (and accurate) assumption that there are no more state governments, and no remaining military to report.

There’s no time to dwell on this though because right after that our main character introduces himself while getting bitten by a rattlesnake on a morning hike.

Our man Isherwood Williams, hereafter known as “Ish,” is a graduate student of anthropology who’s holed up in a cabin in the woods while what Ish later calls The Great Disaster burns through the human population of Earth. Lest you think it’s the cabin in the woods trope that saves our hero, it’s made clear that the virus is airborne and that even the most isolated pockets of humanity are affected. In what is probably the lamest narrative device Stewart employs, it is the rattlesnake bite that saves Ish, while natural immunity saves the few others he meets later. Ish passes the time in a convenient venom-vs.-mystery-plague delirium while civilization sickens and dies.

Speaking of narrative devices, Stewart’s handling of them in this novel are what puts Earth Abides above a lot of novels, and not just those of post-apocalyptic flavor. If the rattlesnake venom as plague-denier is eye-rollingly cheesetastic, Stewart’s other tricks to move the narrative along are inspired. For instance, a lesser writer (i.e., every other writer) would have made much of the rattlesnake bite and used it to complicate the part at every dull turn a complication seemed called for. That does not happen here. Ish recovers, and though the bite is mentioned every now and again, it’s not a factor in plot development.

The same goes for Ish’s awakening, his discovery of the disaster, and subsequent road trip across America to seek out survivors. A road trip across America, with maybe one stop to work out a major conflict with an antagonist and his tribe, would have formed the entire narrative arc of most books. Although Stewart took at least three cross-country road trips in the pre-Interstate days, the first in 1924 when such adventures were an almost unimaginable novelty, he doesn’t let Ish linger over as the journey as much as you would expect. Ish drives out from his San Francisco bay area digs, meets some people, gets as far as New York City, and comes back, meeting a few more people along the way. Some thought is given to the changes in the landscape, to the chances of various survivors he meets, to the evolving ecology now that man’s domesticated animals are loose on the land and the other animals are free from the threat of the gun. 

Even the botany of de-populated America is considered. I found these passages engrossing, but a common gripe in other reviews of Earth Abides is the time spent on Ish’s observations of the land and what kind of people it will take to build a new civilization as opposed to merely surviving. Fair enough: if you’re into the disaster-as-backdrop-for-compelling-human-drama trope that cripples current genre television offerings like The Walking Dead and Falling Skies, then you will not like Earth Abides. Stewart brings you as much human drama as he feels he must, but again, the fascination with this book is Stewart’s own fascination with the Process: how the way things are might become the way things will be once a new variable is injected into the equation — or something else is taken away.

As that goes, I found Stewart’s musings through Ish (a flawed and often irritating character, I’ll grant) a welcome antidote to Alan Weisman’s 2007 non-fiction book The World Without Us, in which the world is imagined if humans simply disappeared, rapture-style. Weisman let his aversion to offending religious fundamentalists and other right-wing pathological cases like climate-change deniers skew his speculations on a post-human Earth. His let’s-all-get-along parlor-liberal timorousness stunk up the entire book, ultimately killing its credibility.

Not only does Stewart most emphatically not suffer such cowardice, he goes out of his way to tweak the bigots and the fools — in 1949, no less, just one year after Democrats like Ronald Reagan had defected to the Republican Party because Harry Truman had had the nerve to order the racial integration of the armed services. Shortly after Ish meets the Eve to his Adam, a woman named only Em (think “M” for Mother, as in “Mother of Nations,” which is how Ish often thinks of her), Em points out to Ish the “blue in the half-moons” in her cuticles, indicating she’s a...a...well, she apparently managed to pass, back in the day. Em confesses guilt for not mentioning her background to Ish, even as she feels duty-bound to have his children in the childless waste. Ish’s response is a stiff middle finger to the Dixiecrats:

Oh, darling,” he said, “everything is smashed and New York lies empty from Spuyten Duyvil to the Battery, and there’s no government in Washington. The senators and the judges and the governors are all dead and rotten, and the Jew-baiters and the Negro-baiters along with them. We’re just two poor people picking at the leavings of civilization for our lives, not knowing whether it’s to be the ants or the rats or something else will get us. Maybe a thousand years from now people can afford the luxury of wondering and worrying about that kind of thing again. But I doubt it. And now there are just the two of us here, or maybe three, now.

To behold such courage in 1949 against the don’t-wish-to-offend gutlessness of 2007’s The World Without Us makes me wonder if we haven’t gone backward. 

Then Stewart gets even bolder. Consider this passage, in which Em calls bullshit on the notion that a child-killing epidemic among the Tribe (as the group that builds around Ish and Em call themselves) might be God’s vengeance for a perceived transgression:

“All I know is we did what we thought best. If there is a God who made us and we did wrong before His eyes—as George says—at least we did wrong only because we were as God made us, and I do not think that He should set traps. Oh, you should know better than George! Let us not bring all that back into the world again—the angry God, the mean God—the one who does not tell us the rules of the game, and then strikes us when we break them. Let’s not bring Him back! Not you, too!”

A lot happens in the 345 pages that comprise the actual text of the novel. Characters go and come, even those you expect to be around forever, but the ever-expanding tribe of Ish and Em, as with the Earth, abideth. There are setbacks. Still, more incidents that would blossom into page-killing melodrama in other books are resolved with breathtaking efficiency. Stewart’s mastery of avoiding such rabbit holes was what impressed me more than anything else in the book, more than Stewart’s open scorn of reactionary politics and superstition.

We get more of the italicized Greek chorus, though those passages rarely go on for more than a page, if that much. Years go by. We see the roads disappear beneath the creeping plants. We see the houses crumble from disrepair. We see Process. I found it refreshing that Ish and his crew often talk about things yet never get around to doing them—natural human inertia is taken into account in a way I’ve never seen before in novels.

Still, there’s plenty to argue with. As some reviewers have pointed out, canned goods would spoil quicker than one thinks, and the gasoline would be useless well before 20 years is up. Also, Ish and Em’s people are downright lazy. I say this as the laziest person I know—even I would be willing to sacrifice a day or three at a time if it meant keeping the water and electricity running.

I was also puzzled and disappointed by the way the Tribe handled education among their young people. Despite the premium Ish places on imagination and vision it doesn’t occur to Ish to adapt his curriculum and the way it is taught to the needs of the children of a post-apocalyptic society. I can’t help wondering if this, along with the letting-go of indoor plumbing and electric light, wasn’t deliberately serving Stewart’s need to see humanity go back to a simpler, quieter, more pastoral state, the tribes too spread out to engender conflict and war.

Again, I can’t help thinking that Jack London understood human nature better. A tribe like Ish and Em’s would be a stark exception, and in grave danger of the rule.

Yet for all of the faults which become more and more apparent as I think through what I just read, I’m still pleased—hell, entertained—to see such a mind as Stewart’s at work. Earth Abides is not a perfect post-apocalypse novel but it’s a damned fine book nonetheless. 

A postscript: Stewart cites the cause of his xenocidal catastrophe as the natural result of a population expanding into its tipping point—and tipping. Birds do it, bees do it, we all do it until a corrective plague or famine puts the populations back to barely viable numbers. Sometimes it means eventual and outright extinction. We see this in nature. It’s part of the Process.

There were 2.4 billion humans on the planet in 1950, the year after Earth Abides was first published. In 2011 we have an estimated 7 billion, with more and more coming every day.

Just sayin’.