Review: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

“The people who live in any generation do much, he realized, either to create or to solve the problems for the people who come in the generations later.”
~George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

Plot summary

“A disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of the globe, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he ultimately discovers will prove far more astonishing than anything he’d either dreaded or hoped for.” More on Goodreads

On George R. Stewart

“George Rippey Stewart was an American toponymist, a novelist, and a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. He is best known for his only science fiction novel Earth Abides (1949), a post-apocalyptic novel, for which he won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951. It was dramatized on radio’s Escape and inspired Stephen King’s The Stand.

His 1941 novel Storm, featuring as its protagonist a Pacific storm called Maria, prompted the National Weather Service to use personal names to designate storms and inspired Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe to write the song ‘They Call the Wind Maria’ for their 1951 musical ‘Paint Your Wagon.’

Stewart was a founding member of the American Name Society in 1956-57, and he once served as an expert witness in a murder trial as a specialist in family names. His best-known academic work is Names on the Land – A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Last American standing
  • New civilization
  • Post-apocalyptic vision of humankind
George R. Stewart's "Earth Abides." Ace Star K-154. 1962, though copyright in the book just states 1949. Cover art by Bob Abbett. Photo: admiral.ironbombs (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Cover for the 1962 version of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, Ace Star K-154. Cover art by Robert Abbett. Photo: admiral.ironbombs (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“History was an artist, maintaining the idea but changing the details, like a composer keeping the same theme but dulling it to a minor or lifting by an octave, now crooning it with violins, now blaring it on trumpets.” ~George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

“Crusoe’s religious preoccupations seemed boring and rather silly.” ~George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

“Men go and come, but earth abides.” ~George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

“It is a strange thing,” he thought, “to be an old god. They worship you, and yet they mistreat you. If you do not want to do what they wish, they make you. It is not fair.” ~George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

Earth Abides might be one of those books that have gotten lost by the current generations. At least the Finnish audience might be for the most part unaware of this gem just because the post-apocalyptic novel has not been translated into Finnish. I ran into this novel by chance, and I’m glad I did. There is a hint of sad sleepiness in the progress of the plot that is prevalent in many post-apocalyptic accounts of the future.

As I listed under Books to read in the future, there are several dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels to read. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) is on the to-read list, and there will be a separate review on John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956) later on.

It could be a coincidence but perhaps the early years of the Cold War might have played a role in the establishment of all three post-apocalyptic novels mentioned above. There was a high concentration on the constant threat of nuclear war, although the cause of havoc in the three novels seems to stem from diseases or viruses. A newer representative of the genre comes from Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy of phantasmagoric proportions. It’s a mystery why Madam Atwood is skipping all my book lists, it’s a disappointment in fact. She should be in the spotlight. The MaddAddam trilogy is a fantastic tale of how playing with biological substances can lead to hell and terrorism, well maybe not in that order but anyways.

Currently hardly anybody talks about the threat of a nuclear war, but the biological threats that could result in global pandemic are on the rise again. Although one hardly seems to be able to avoid zombies included in the deal as presented in popular culture, #TheWalkingDead and #Zombieland 🙂 They seem to be a solution for a post-apocalyptic situation, although honestly zombies are the least dangers we should we worried about in real life. A literary exception is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), a sad tale of a fallen and dangerous society as witnessed by an even sadder pair, a father and his son.

Another sociological comparison is Harry Harrison’s dystopian novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966) that explores the consequences of unchecked population growth on society. So, it is the alternate horror equivalent to Stewart’s Earth Abides, only with opposing end results. Stay tuned for the review of Harrison’s novel at a later time.

Dreamlike beauty of indecision

Stewart’s novel is beautifully lyrical and almost dreamlike despite its horrible setting and circumstances. The text advances like a fairytale of historical reinvention. Civilizations come and go and technology gets reintroduced according to equipment and availabilities. The novel tells the end of an era, a society we have come to understand and know. An interesting feature of Earth Abides is that despite the dreadful consequences of the disease that wipes off most of the human population, decency does not end. The characters are polite and they behave mostly rationally despite the surrounding ordeal.

I think Stewart manages to capture the essence of what it could be to be left in a world without the supporting elements, such as societies, rule of law and representative governments. The sadness on the one hand and clarity of the characters on the other hand seem plausible. There is a haziness of depression in the characters, which I see as a symptom of indecision. Few people have to make new decisions after a pandemic has struck. One would probably feel inadequate, melancholic and careful about everything and everyone. There would be an enormous amount of pressure placed on the shoulders of a handful of persons.

There is almost a level of sensual excitement in the pondering of possible future outcomes, just like there is a different kind of excitement concerning car accidents in J.G. Ballard’s Crash. I guess it’s a prevalent human trait to consider potential scenarios of the future, especially dark and sinister ones.

If you are leaning towards dystopic thinking, check out Black Mirror (2011-), a science fiction TV drama series that shows the dark side of life, technology and human interaction in a near future dimension.

“It has never happened!” cannot be construed to mean, “It can never happen!”—as well say, “Because I have never broken my leg, my leg is unbreakable,” or “Because I’ve never died, I am immortal.” ~George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

More information
– Andi Shechter: After the Big One, review published in the January Magazine, link retrieved on 17 November 2016
Earth Abides book cover photos, published by blogger Jack, link retrieved on 17 November 2016
– James Sallis (February 16, 2003): Earth Abides: Stewart’s dark eulogy for humankind, published in the Boston Globe Columns on 16 February 2003, link retrieved on 17 November 2016
– D. D. Shade: Earth Abides, review published in the Lost Book Archives on 11 June 1998, link retrieved on 17 November 2016
– SF Signal: REVIEW: Earth Abides by George R Stewart, published on 29 April 2006, link retrieved on 17 November 2016

Other novels, stories and books by Stewart
  • Bret Harte, Argonaut & Exile (1931)
  • Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party (1936)
  • East of Giants (1938)
  • Doctor’s Oral (1939)
  • Storm (1941)
  • Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (1945)
  • Man: An Autobiography (1946)
  • Sheep Rock (1951)
  • U.S. 40: Cross Section of the United States of America (1953)
  • American Ways of Life (1954)
  • The Pioneers Go West (1954)
  • These Men My Friends (1954)
  • The Years of the City (1955)
  • Pickett’s Charge (1959)
  • The California Trail: An Epic with Many Heroes (1962)
  • Good Lives (1967)
  • Not So Rich As You Think (1968)
  • Fire (1971)
  • Names on the Globe (1975)

“You used to have the jokes about never fixing the roof until it rained. People were undoubtedly the same now, or worse. They might well wait until something happened that forced them to act; that something would almost certainly be unpleasant—most likely, serious. Yet.”
~George R. Stewart, Earth Abides


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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