Friday, November 04, 2005

35. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides book pictureWell I jumped on the bandwagon with this one, following in the footsteps of the Mt. Benson report as well as the Crumbolst response. Unfortunately, June 23rd accidently erased his archives, so I can't compare his reaction to the others. I do know that he is using the book in his 9th grade humanities class, which will be very interesting to hear about.

It took me a while to realize how different this book is from the rest of the Post-Apocalyptic genre. As the previous readers mentioned above have noted, it is the grand-daddy of the genre, since it was written in 1949 and it really does avoid the standard tact of some kind of conflict after the fall. Rather, the nature of the apocalypse is relatively gentle. Almost everybody dies from a disease. But there is no horror of violence and fear. It all happens very quickly and society is very ordered about their response, right up into the end. So for the protagonist, who was up in the mountains, it's more like the world just emptied out all of a sudden. We get to see the slow degradation of what man has left behind, as some animals die out and others multiply. Building begin to collapse, forest fires rage, the roads deteriorate. The first third of the book is a thorough and delicious exploration of this slow reversion to nature.

The rest of the book then deals with society as the narrator finds a wife and a few other people and they start a little community. There are conflicts, but only one major one and it is not the point of the narrative. The narrator is much more concerned with the graual detachment from the traditions, behaviours and learnings from the past and how this affects the older people (who were around in the past) and the younger ones differently.

By the end of the book, the narrator is old and feeble and the last person around before the disease came. Society and mankind look like they are going to begin again, but down a very different path, semi-primitive but perhaps socially more sophisticated and maybe freer.

Overall, I'm not sure if this is a pessimistic or optimistic vision. It almost seems more like a very indifferent anthropological study, as if the author just wanted to explore "what would happen". The main character is a geographer and is constantly positing himself as a researcher, just on the outside of society.

I have two points of disagreement with the author. First, he makes a huge distinction between intelligent people and stupid people. I don't know if this is because of the period, but he seems to be making eugenic assumptions. There is a half-wit girl who (thought treated with kindness by the tribe) is treated as basically a non-human. There is no sense at all that she might have something to offer. All the children are considered unteachable because they came from "unintelligent" parents. He theorizes that the reason their parents survived the shock of the post-disease world was because they were not intellectually sensitive enough to appreciate the horror of it. I found this to be a limiting scope on the study of how man would react to such world. That kind of thinking was quite common at the time.

I found that it played into his views on education. The narrator just gives up on teaching the kids because they (except one) don't have the bright eyes and natural desire for learning. Well what kid does? If all kids wanted to learn, we'd all be teachers (or we wouldn't need any). It's the same with how sort of lame and pathetic the first wave of survivors were. He tried to suggest that it was because they could just scavenge, but I have a more optimistic view of human nature (at least in this context). We are a busy and progressing species. Even if we could just scavenge for food, there would be so many other projects that people would undertake. It could be that this took place in America. The people almost seemed like the cast of Survivor. Perhaps had it been Canada, some serious shit would have been getting done.

Overall, a really enjoyable book, though I found the prose a bit too lyrical at times. It does make you think about how humans would rebuild and paints a rich and detailed, though in my opinion, fundamentally flawed, picture of this process.


Jason L said...

The intelligent/stupid theme seems to be a relatively consistent theme in early P-A and British New Wave books. Often the narrator holds the intellectual high ground and apportions a large part of the blame for the decline/inability to rebuild on the masses (read: stupider folk). I suspect this is an somewhat an artifact of the time. The postwar period saw a breakdown of the more rigid class barriers and the expansion of the middle class. I'm reading a Ballard book right now that drives straight at this point. Watch my blog.

Buzby said...

One thing you should bear in mind that 1949 Britain was still very much in the WWII mindset. The country had still not recovered economically and they were very concerned about threats from an expansionist Soviet Union and, less imminentnly, Germany.

Perhaps many of the author's approaches are derived from the situation at the time.

Crumbolst said...

What a great review!

One thing I'd like to note is that in the end, the boys are depicted as very bright, capable people. Their education was different than that of the pre-apocalypse days, but certainly more pertinant. Without spoiling too much, it takes a great deal of intelligence to craft a useful bow and arrows.

I was also interested in Ish's attempts to preserve the university library, a place only his son was privy to. A son, mind you, who could not survive in this post-apocalypse world (that, if anything, was predictable). One thing I enjoyed about the book was the notion that all knoweldge accumulated over millenia could be lost. This is especially disturbing to 21st century readers, now that all knowledge going to be digital. Is Ballard still alive? If so, I have an idea for him... "Crash" could take on a whole new meaning.

I found the author's anthropological (as you aptly said), hands-off approach to what would happen, to be refreshing.

But I agree that the intelligent/stupid thing was distracting at best and offensive at worst.

WeSailFurther said...

I am very annoyed that my review was deleted (by me) by accident. Mike and I had a little conversation about it.

I've been walking around with the book in my head for a while because I knew I'd be teaching it to my 7th graders. The 7th grade course themes are "what is government and why do we have it?" I thought the second section of the book, once more survivors show up and the tribe starts to have kids is most interesting because they are literally reconstructing and rebuild society themselves.

I do consider the book a sort of blueprint for what will happen when the power goes off. I think Stewart neatly sidesteps the millions of people dying issue with some battle-scarred, hollow-eyed survivors. But wouldn't it be more like 28 Days Later, the riot scenes in the beginning of the movie? Or like Outbreak, the government torching whole cities in an effort to quarantine the disease...

Anyway, the most important part of the book for my class will be when the tribe has to decide what justice is, when the outsider comes and messes with the slow girl...we have been studying why we have gov't (including reading excerpts from Rousseau (we team up/have Gov't to protect us from dangerous world), Locke (we team up and have Gov't to protect Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Property), and Hobbes (people are generally warlike and unless we have Gov't/team up life is nasty, brutish and short). So now we see two individuals, Ish and Emma, whoo get to decide everything.

One of the things that strikes me as dated, and I really feel lucky to live in our modern times, is that Emma is overwhelmed, on page 118, that Ish doesn't care that she is Jewish. Amazing, that that was a forbidden thing, or taboo broken, or a line being crossed that makes Ish special. And that little exchange between the two of them makes WW2 feel especially close.

Anyway. I have a lot to say about the book. My kids aren't enjoying it so much and I blame my student teacher. She is sucking the life out of it. I am going to be doing the lessons next week, so I will report back later. We did watch the first 35 minutes of 28 Days Later to get the same sense of disorientation that Jim/Ish have. Of being left behind. Ish and Jim both go to their parents house. Jim goes to a church, while Ish declares he is more of a scientist...

I did also say, as a reaction to something Mike said, that I especially liked that being an "American" made Ish a god of sorts, that he was the last to remember the old times, and wondered if that was symbolism, in the context of WW2, for Ish being the last person who could remember a pre-nuclear world, that Ish represented the war generation. The book was written after the soldiers got back and should have acclimatized themselves to a peaceful Cold War. And that America was going on with its business, and that maybe the vets themselves felt lost, that their parades were over and thanks a lot but we're moving on. The older soldiers feel lost and so too does their avatar, Ish. That's just some English major mumbo jumbo, maybe.

I could talk about this book all day.

Doc said...

A two-part radio play was created about this book in 1950 as episodes 131 and 132 of the series Escape. I have posted the files at my blog:

The shows are part of the public domain. They may be enjoyed and spread to others without fear of copyright infringement.