Book Review: Earth Abides – by George R. Stewart

Men go and come, but earth abides.

It is the year 1949. Isherwood Williams, called Ish by his friends, is a graduate student in “ecology” in the Berkeley area in Northern California. He is out in the woods, staying in a cabin, when he pulls himself up on a ledge and is accidentally bitten in his hand by a rattlesnake. With a makeshift tourniquet he makes his way back to his cabin where he is delirious for a few days. When he is well again, coming out of the mountains, he eventually realizes that a pandemic has apparently killed off almost everyone in the world. It takes weeks before he finds the first other survivor.

To overcome the shock, he packs up a car and travels across the United States, making it all the way to New York City, only to discover that nobody is left, but a few odd people in every city. Dejected, he finds his way back to Berkeley and starts pulling his life back together. Within the first year, he finds a woman, Emma, Em for short, and they decide to have children. Eventually another young man named Ezra and two women he picked as wives, as well as an older couple, George and Maureen, form a small community they call The Tribe. They live off the scraps of the “old world,” scavenging from grocery stores what is not eaten by rats and ants, which is anything in cans, glass jars or bottles.

The book is organized in several main sections. First we follow Ish and The Tribe through the formative first few years. They have children, they create a new order, and they survive. Then we fast forward through about 20 years. In the year 22 after the great plague, we spend another year with the Tribe, now many dozens of people, all the offspring of the original seven. Then we fast forward once again for another 20 or more years. The Tribe is now several hundred people, most if not all are illiterate, the scraps of the old world are used up, and society has reverted to hunter and gatherer practices.

This is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in a long time. The story started in the 1940-ies, but it could easily start in 2010. Take all the people of  the world away. The infrastructure would rapidly deteriorate. Cell phone service would probably stop within a few days, perhaps weeks. Power might last for a few months, depending on the location and the type of power-plant serving the area. The same with water. Groceries would spoil quickly after refrigeration stopped. All modern skills, like management, finance and computer programming would be completely useless. Gardening, construction, chemistry and medicine would be valuable. All our experience and knowledge would be useless, and we’d be thrown back to the stone age within a few years.

Earth Abides is a timeless  masterpiece, inspiring and terrifying at the same time. I will never think about human civilization the same way again.

Rating: ****

One thought on “Book Review: Earth Abides – by George R. Stewart

  1. Eric Petrie

    Great concept, well conveyed. This collapse of infrastructure fear (death of all the “software”) is definitely one of the underlying anxieties of anyone in the know.

    I am not saying I think it is likely. It’s just easy to think about once you know that you are vulnerable. I live within walking distance of a giant box-store supermarket. But if anything stops the steady arrival of truckloads of commodities there, my little city undergoes a panic.

    And in my case, I need a steady stream of perishable medical supplies, including insulin that stays viable in a refrigerator for only a month after opening. After that long a delay, my family’s needs become life and death.

    So I have a jack-of-all-trades former farmer friend in southern Michigan. If any serious problem occurs, I have made a pact to show up at his door with my family so we can wait out the crisis. That’s how crazy one has to be, living at the top of the technology food chain.

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