For the last several years I’ve been rereading the science fiction books that I fondly remember as being great when I first read them back in the 1960s and 1970s. I’m looking for the books that have a lifetime of meaning, that hold up to a second reading after I’ve acquired an additional 30-40 years of wisdom. It’s easy to find a mind blowing book at 13, it’s much harder at 58. I’m also trying to find out why science fiction has been important to me my whole life.
Earth Abides is a novel I’d rank right up there in science fictional vision with The Time Machine. Unfortunately, it is not as famous. Earth Abides succeeds magnificently at storytelling and philosophy, the two most important ingredients that I’ve come to admire the most. Science fiction, like mystery and romance novels, are generally seen as an escapist literatures, but great storytelling combined with deep philosophical insight often produces the classics of each genre, like The Maltese Falcon and Pride and Prejudice.
Most bookworms classify genre books by general topics, so if it’s about a murder, its a mystery, if its about love, its a romance, if its about alien invasions its science fiction. I think that’s too crude to define the soul of science fiction. At its core, a classic science fiction novel needs to have a unique philosophical vision about reality that speculates on the future. Science fiction is never about predicting the future, but exploring all the possible futures.
All during my life Earth Abides has reminded of the crucial nature of civilization, and I’ve worried more about its death than my own. Most people are concerned with the birth of civilization, and learning such history is well and good, but knowing that it can be taken away is more important. Earth Abides belongs to a sub-genre of science fiction that teaches about the end of mankind.
By reexamining the science fiction books I loved in youth, I’ve sought their secrets by seeking out the very best examples. From this I’ve learned that certain storytelling techniques combined with the right philosophical explorations produce classic science fiction novels. Science used to be called natural philosophy, and the best science fiction is written by natural philosophers and not scientists.
George R. Stewart explores dozens of philosophical issues in Earth Abides, first published in 1949. Many of the questions he asks his readers to ponder didn’t become common ideas until the 1960s or 1970s. Stewart creates a plot that takes the reader through many scenes where I can’t help but believe they will stop their reading and start fantasizing about what they would do in the same situation. That’s a great storytelling technique if you can pull it off. One of the many reasons why The Time Machine is so great is because readers will ponder where they would go in time. Earth Abides gets its readers to think about being the last person on Earth, and then when a few more people are found, how would they rebuild civilization.
I first read Earth Abides over thirty years ago, and it’s always stuck in my mind, a very memorable story that I’ve told people about again and again. This month I returned to that novel by listening to a recent audiobook edition that commemorated it’s 60th anniversary.
Remember the 2007 book The World Without Us or the TV shows Life After People and Aftermath: Population Zero? These nonfiction works asks what the world would be like if people suddenly disappeared. Earth Abides used the same concept in a novel back in 1949, but in George R. Stewart’s story, a handful of people do survive to chronicle the decay of civilization. I’ve always loved stories like Mysterious Island, Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, about people stranded on a deserted island. Earth Abides is about one man, Isherwood Williams, who survives an airborne plague that kills off almost the entire world population, leaving only a few survivors in each city.
Isherwood, who goes by Ish, wants to rebuild civilization but can’t. Ish is an intellectual who understands science and fascinatingly observes nature’s quick reclamation of civilization. Stewart was very aware of ecology and Earth Abides explores ecology in a way that was visionary for its time. Ish hopes he can preserve knowledge and pass it on to future generations, but the book is relentlessly realistic.
I’ve read a lot of science fiction books, and I put Earth Abides on the same level as The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. This is science fiction at its best. I love science fiction because it shows the possibilities for mankind’s futures. I love to think we’ll always march onward and upward, but what if AIDS had spread like a cold and killed like the Ebola virus?
Fundamentally we like to believe this universe follows the anthropic principle. Because of this we don’t think our species will die out – we’re destined for greatness, aren’t we? But what if that’s an illusion? What if intelligent life in the universe is routinely snuffed out, even after the universe has gone to great lengths to create it? George R. Stewart claims Earth abides, that Earth will go on fine without people, but he really should have said the multiverse abides. We know the Earth has its own lifespan and future death.
If a Tree Falls in a Forest…
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is an old philosophical Kōan. Without man, who is here to perceive reality? Life on Earth existed for billions of years before mankind, and might just as well exist for billions of years without us. Our egos don’t like that idea for a number of reasons. Theists want to believe reality was created for mankind by God, and atheists like to think reality is ours to understand. The novel Earth Abides reminds us the reality is indifferent to us, and we have no special place in it. We are equal to all things that come and go. Mankind is one gamma ray burst from non-existence.
In the book The World Without Us there is no man or woman to chronicle the fate of the Earth. Stewart was writing fiction, so he needed a narrator to hear the tree fall in the forest, and that is Isherwood Williams. Through Isherwood Williams we feel what life on Earth without humans feels like. At first Ish is totally alone, but then he meets a few other survivors. There are so few people left that we’re not sure if humans won’t die out. Many readers consider this bleak, although Stewart wants us to think humanity will make it, he’s less sure we will recreate technological civilization.
Are We Our Machines?
By the end of the novel, the descendents of Isherwood Williams are simple hunting and gathering tribe. They have no idea what technology, literature, medicine, history and all our other forms of knowledge are, and even though they know they live in the ruins of a dead civilization, they can only think of the makers of that collapse society as the mythical Americans. They even wonder if the Americans made the hills and land. We live with computers, smart phones, cars, televisions, electricity, and so much other technology that we are defined by it. Earth Abides shows us what it would be like to exist without machines. Can you imagine such a life?
The great thing about being stranded on an island stories is we get to imagine ourselves in the same situation and wonder what we’d do. It’s like the TV show Survivor. Would you be one of the people who build the huts, finds the food and tends the fire, or would you just mooch off the people who do? How much do you contribute to civilization now and how much are you a parasite of it? Are you and I even adding to our own destruction of civilization?
What Kind of Survival Person Are You?
George R. Stewart ends up subtly judging people in Earth Abides which turns out to be one of the more revealing aspects of the novel. Ish is a thinking man who seldom acts, and he knows it. He is constantly tortured by picturing what might happen and agonizes that he can’t convince the others to prepare for the future. Isherwood Williams is probably like most bookworms who will embrace this book. I know I identify with him completely.
I can’t tell you about the other people without ruining the story, but each represents a type of person you already know – so imagine how your friends would survive and what kind of new civilization they would build. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky features the same problem. If you’re a lawyer you’ll want to make rules. If you are a carpenter, you’ll want to build houses. I’m a computer programmer – a skill of little use when there’s no electricity.
In Earth Abides, the first post collapse generation lives off of canned, preserved and dried foods, and by scavenging. If I had been thrown into this world I think I would have started gardening right away, even though I’m not a gardening person now. Stewart predicts people won’t show initiative and just adapt to the environment, and he might be right. But I’d like to believe, like Ish, that everyone should take up a skill to preserve, like the characters in Fahrenheit 451, who memorize books to preserve.
How Many People Does It Take To Maintain Civilization?
In Earth Abides, Ish’s little tribe doesn’t have enough people to rebuild electrical generating stations, or even maintaining water pipes. If half the population dies I imagine we’d have enough people to rebuild civilization. But if ninety percent perish, it would be hard. In Earth Abides only about 1 in 100,000 live, so you can imagine no one wants to work in factories or coal mines.
If you were in this situation and came across a pig and was hungry, could you kill and butcher it? Would you know how to gather two pigs and start a pig farm? Would you start a pig farm as long as you could easily find canned hams and spam? Stewart explores so many fascinating issues in this book that I think reading it would be mesmerizing to most readers.
I’m Not a Back to Nature Person
Whenever I read a book like Earth Abides, or even just watch an episode of Survivor, I realize that I’m not a back-to-nature kind of guy. Many people believe that living like the Amish might be spiritually better than living in sin city civilization. Conservatives believe that progress has gone well beyond usefulness. I on the other hand, think iPads and space telescopes makes us better people. But the real philosophical question is: Is the meaning of life more than just surviving?
The documentaries Life After People and Aftermath: Population Zero (both available at Netflix) illustrate beautifully that nature will recycle most signs of civilization within a couple hundred years, but eventually even the pyramids and Hoover damn will disappear. I love nature shows, and I don’t mind seeing the Earth taken over by nature again, but I wouldn’t want to live there as the last man on Earth. I find meaning in progress, not survival.
After the Collapse as a Genre
Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man (1826) about a world-wide plague, and Jack London wrote The Scarlet Plague (1912) about another plague, so apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction has been around awhile. Actually, The Time Machine (1895) deals with this topic too. We have to assume the black death gave lots of people the idea, but the end of mankind might go well back into prehistory. Since Stewart, numerous science fiction novels have dealt with the subject, especially during the cold war years. But out of all the after the collapse stories I’ve read, Earth Abides is my favorite, and probably for three reasons.
First, the storytelling is wonderful. Second, Stewart provides so many vivid details that I embrace his well thought-out ideas as completely realistic. And third, and probably the most important, I really identify with Isherwood Williams. The whole last hour I was so choked up I couldn’t see – good thing I was listening and not reading.
Quite by accident I started reading A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., which could be a practical sequel to Earth Abides. It’s books like these that define science fiction. Anyone wanting to write a science fiction classic needs to study them.
JWH – 4/21/10