Earth Abides: The Agnostic Post-Apocalypse
Donald P. Goodman IIIVersion 1.0,
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart, is a powerful, moving exploration of a relatively nondescript naturally-occurring apocalypse. It is different from most post-apocalyptic novels in two main particulars. First, it mostly ignores the apocalypse itself, focusing on the aftermath; and second, it is astonishingly long-term, extending some (in my estimation) sixty or seventy years. One of the earliest apocalyptic novels (written shortly after the Second World War, in 1165 (1949)), Earth Abides provides a fascinating mid-century agnostic take on this now-common science-fiction genre.
Earth Abides has a pretty taut list of characters, and really only four or five that are explored in any detail. Our protagonist, from whose perspective the entire story is told, is Isherwood Williams (known throughout, by everyone, simply as “Ish”), a graduate student whose thesis is the scintillating The Ecology of the Black Creek Area. An anthropologist, Ish is fascinated by the workings of societies and their relations to their geographical and human surroundings; this fascination pervades the entirety of the book. He becomes the de facto leader of “the Tribe”, the group of survivors that eventually comes to surround him.
Ish's wife, whom we don't meet for some time into the book, is Em, known only as such. She is not particularly bright, but she is incredibly wise and incredibly strong. Em's character, in fact, is quite often the rock that holds Ish, and therefore the Tribe, together; and Ish's title for her, “the Mother of Nations,” is both more and less than she deserves.
Ezra, whose casual and unremarked bigamy is universally accepted but also unduplicated in the Tribe, is the “people person” of the group. He meets Ish and Em early on, but decides to head on to “find a nice girl” and come back. He returns instead with two, along with Evie, a mentally handicapped girl who is treated with humanitarian concern by the Tribe, even while Ish, with a truly shocking brutality, contemplates eugenic “solutions” to the “problem” she presents. Ezra is the greaser of the social cogs; he knows people, and at one point his ability to read and relate to people quite probably saves the community, though it also presents them their first true moral dilemma.
George is a very solid man with the technical skills in carpentry, plumbing, and other trades that keeps the Tribe going for many decades. He is infinitely reliable, but utterly uncreative. The Tribe cannot live without him, at least for a long time; but his contribution is purely material, and he is primarily a follower by his nature.
Joey is one of Ish and Em's children. He is the bright one: smart, inquisitive, and fascinated by Ish's every word. Joey becomes the hope of the Tribe, in Ish's mind, but his arc is both tragically short and meaningful for Ish's view of the world.
As noted above, the apocalypse that leads to the story of Earth Abides is pretty nondescript, and we see basically nothing about how it progressed. There is some horrible plague; very few survive. We see very little of the dead; we merely see a largely depopulated world. This comes entirely from Ish's perspective; the others rarely speak of it, and even then only in very general terms.
Ish himself is in the woods when the plague devastates the world, working on writing his graduate thesis. While in the woods, he finds a hammer; a four-pound hammer, with a square head and a handle. The hammer becomes an important symbol, for the community and then for Ish, as well. But Ish is also bitten by a rattlesnake, and makes it back to his cabin to treat it as best he can and recover. However, while there he gets sick, and enters a feverish and disconnected few days. He sees a few people from time to time who appear to be fleeing into the mountains, likely from the nearby city of San Francisco; he is able to make no sense of this. Ish has no radio, so he has no idea what is happening in the outside world; indeed, he even reflects that another Pearl Harbor might have happened without him knowing it.
When he finally recovers, he goes to a nearby cabin and service station owned by a family he knows, the Johnsons; he finds it abandoned. As he explores further, he finds that everything is abandoned; mankind has been all but wiped out.
Ish wanders, and eventually decides to go across the country to see what he can see: what has survived, what has not. He finds very little. Here and there he encounters people; they are not the sort of people he'd like to associate with, by and large. One man he encounters has clearly dealt with the trauma of the great plague with drink, and would undoubtedly drink himself to death before long. On his way across the Deep South he encounters a black family, and America's mid-century racism is fully on display here. They are clearly former sharecroppers and poorly educated, and Ish is momentarily tempted to just step in and take the place of their former white overlords, thinking that he could survive pretty well while they did all of the work. Ultimately, though, he decides to go on. In New York, he encounters a businessman and an old socialite, who have taken up together in a high-rise apartment and are keeping up the appearances of a well-to-do urban existence as best as they can. Nothing tempts Ish to stay, however, so he decides to head back to his home in San Francisco, and finds it completely unchanged.
Then, however, he meets Em. Here, at last, is someone he thinks he can really throw in with; here, at last, is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. They come together as a married couple without formality or even real thought, which is unfortunate; but Em's strength of character anchors Ish and the Tribe for the rest of the book. Strangely, given the racism involved in the encounter with the black family in the South, it becomes clear that Em is herself black, though apparently relatively light-skinned; this provides no pause to Ish or to anyone else.
Over time, more people join them. Ezra and his two wives; Evie, so frequently described as a “half-wit” in the text; George and Maureen. And children began to be born; each of the women have many children, and before long they are referring to themselves as “the Tribe”. Their number continues to increase throughout the novel, though they don't join with, or even contact, any other surviving “tribes” until decades later. They live casually, indeed recklessly, relying on canned goods (which, in Stewart's universe, remain edible for an astonishingly long time) and the indoor plumbing which continues to work for decades, as well. There are problems, of course; dangerous wild animals, including wolves and mountain lions (one of which mauls Ish himself, giving him a lifelong limp), return to the Bay area, and diseases make their occasional strikes. But for several decades, the little Tribe lives what externally must have looked pretty idyllic: ample, easy food; free water; a temperate climate; and harmonious social interactions.
They practice almost no agriculture, so the most important feature of their year is the end of it, which they start to count from the winter solstice. They have a great feast that day, and Ish chisels the number of the year—with the year of the plague being 1—into a large rock near their home. Each year gets a name: the Year of the Lions, or the Bad Year (when several tribesmen died of disease), or similar appellations. Ish chisels, of course, with his Hammer, the same he found in the woods all those years ago. It has become a relic for the Tribe, a vital part of their only really significant custom. Its importance will only increase.
Then, the water stops.
Individual homes had had plumbing problems; George had always been able to fix those. But when the water itself stops, due to a very slow leak in one of the main lines, they are compelled to seek elsewhere. They dig a well, and at Ish's insistence (an insistence he has put before them many times over the years), they decide to send out a search party for other communities. They manage to get a car working, and to find some still-usable tires (the expiration of gasoline does not seem to have been on Stewart's radar), and two of the younger tribesmen, one of them Ish's oldest son, head out to find whatever communities they can. And life goes on.
When the expedition returns, the community's first great crisis occurs: they bring another man, Charlie, back with them.
Charlie is a very friendly man, but something about him rubs Ish the wrong way. He at first passes this off as jealousy, as Charlie is very popular among the youth, and Ish thinks that subconsciously he is worried about his position in the Tribe. But Ezra, that great judge of humanity, confirms his suspicions, and soon enough gets Charlie good and drunk and learns that Charlie has led a very dissolute life. In the meantime, Ish notices that Charlie has his eye on Evie, who is mentally disabled but also very beautiful; and that is a fundamental problem.
The Tribe has always ensured that Evie was not looked upon as a romantic object by any of the boys; they say, in their eugenicist way, that they can't afford for Evie to have a bunch of equally half-witted children. This motivation aside, they are very protective of Evie, and so when Ish notices Charlie eyeing her, he knows that he needs to take action. He confronts Charlie, and when he does so he carries his Hammer, which is increasingly being seen by the Tribe as a sign of his authority; he is the Hammer-bearer, the one who chisels the numbers into the rock, and their leader. Charlie rebuffs Ish, and so the elders of the Tribe (Charlie; Em; Ezra; George and Maureen; and Ezra's wives) get together to decide what to do. They know that Charlie must go: he cannot be permitted to take advantage of Evie. But how do they get rid of him? Banishment? Or death?
All recoil at the notion of death initially; but they increasingly realize that nothing else will protect their community. They finally take a vote; it is unanimous. Death. They hang Charlie and bury him in an unmarked grave, the latter of which has been their custom for all their dead.
None of them regret the execution; but it fundamentally changes their community. They are no longer an innocent, idyllic little California commune; now they are a society, with authority, rules, and punishments. And the Hammer, the sign of authority, becomes ever more important in that society.
Eventually, the elders begin to die off; even Em, Mother of Nations, passes on. Soon it is only Ish and Ezra, sitting on the hill, with their own grandchildren and even great-grandchildren now running the community. They are hunting; they have begun farming (one of the benefits of their cross-country expedition was some heirloom corn they were able to plant); they are hammering coins into arrowheads, now that the bullets were either gone or their powder damp and useless. As Ish ages and his mind goes, and even Ezra dies, the young increasingly come to him for advice, advice on things that he knows nothing about; which direction they should go to hunt, for example. He protests, weakly, as an old man might, but they insist, and badger him, even physically, until he gives up and answers them; any answer, whether it has reason behind it or not, satisfies them, and then they go away. He never knows if his advice yields any fruit; but they always ask for it. He is now a talisman, a relic of the former age, and has a wisdom that they couldn't access with his help. And, what's more, he is the Hammer-bearer, the chiseler of the rock, and must know things.
Eventually, there is a great wildfire, and Ish is saved by his own great-grandson, Jack, who treats him with the same distant reverence as everyone else, but who takes some pride in being descended from the Hammer-bearer himself. Jack has also been specially charged by the Tribe to be Ish's caretaker; bringing him food, taking him out of the house, and so forth. So when the wildfire comes, Jack and two friends carry Ish to safety; and when Ish realizes he does not have his Hammer, Jack is the one to go back into the house, at great risk to himself, to retrieve it. It's given back to Ish, who is very near death, and soon is lying down and preparing for it.
Jack and his friends realize that Ish will soon die, and they argue among themselves: if the Hammer-bearer dies, what happens to the Tribe? What happens to the Hammer? They need the Hammer, and its bearer; how can the Tribe endure without this central, unifying, vital force, the unifier of its foundation? Eventually, Ish entrusts the Hammer to Jack, and dies.
Then, though his [Ish's] sight was now very dim, he looked again at the young men. “They will commit me to the earth,” he thought. “Yet I also commit them to the earth. There is nothing else by which men live. Men go and come, but earth abides.”
An Agnostic Post-Apocalypse
Ish's dying thoughts lead me to call the novel “the Agnostic Post-Apocalypse”: Earth abides. We are merely ants crawling about on the surface of the earth, scrambling for life, eating, reproducing, dying. The earth supports us, and that it is all that supports us. Individuals, great civilizations, even man himself comes upon the earth and goes away from it; but the earth itself remains forever.
This theme pervades the whole novel. Ish himself has no particular religion. Some of the survivors in the Tribe, one in particular, genuinely want to have “church” again, and Ish humors them for a time, but eventually kills it off, and nobody seems to miss it. Of course, they develop their own little civic religion, centered on Ish, the rock, and the Hammer, along with “the Americans”, of whom Ish is the last. But religion is depicted as an inevitability, a coping mechanism for an uncertain world, rather than as true or false.
At once point, after the first post-plague generation has grown, Ish asks his school-students (about which more later) who made the houses they live in, and the great bridge across the Bay, and the roads, and the canned food. They tell him that all these things were made by “the Americans”. Ish confirms this; the Americans did make them. In fact, Ish tells them solemnly, “I am an American.” The students nod in understanding; of course he is an American. Of course he is one of the great old ones who built so many wonders, which continue to sustain the Tribe long after they were gone. Of course; he bears the Hammer, doesn't he? He chisels the rock? He can read, and knows all about the world, even places that he's never been?
“The Americans” were the Tribe's petty pagan gods; they did great and mighty deeds, but passed away out of history anyway. Just as the Greeks spoke of Hercules and his twelve great tasks, even though Hercules himself was nowhere to be found, so the Tribe spoke of the Americans. Still, those deeds remained, and it made perfect sense that the Tribe's leader, Ish, was one of those Americans. Indeed, when Ish becomes old and such an object of superstition that his own personality itself has been rubbed out within the Tribe, Ish is clearly “the last American”, the only remaining member of the great, god-like old ones who made their world.
This aspect of the novel is both disappointing and satisfying. It is disappointing in that Stewart inserts no solid religion into the novel; indeed, the only real mention of existing religion, besides the abortive church experiment early in the life of the Tribe, is a community met by the Tribe's great expedition, which wore white robes and chased off the vistors with stones because they were unclean. It is satisfying, however, in that Stewart clearly recognizes that, even if there is no truth or falsity inherent in a religion, it is a necessary aspect of human society. If we do not follow a religion, we will make one; and that religion may center on a mere graduate student with a hammer, rather than on lofty and supernatural principles.
Ish is a great lover of education and books. Early on after the plague, he finds the library of the University of California in San Francisco, and makes sure that it is perserved safely. Though he has to break a window to get in, he carefully boards it up behind him so that the beasts and the water cannot get in; he visits it off and on throughout the novel, and even brings his dear son Joey to it. This library, Ish reflects, has essentially the sum total of all human knowledge, the great records of history's greatest civilization, and it would always be available to him whenver he needed it.
Still, Ish hardly ever uses it. When Em first tells him that she is pregnant, he decides that he will definitely go to the library and get books to learn what he should do; yet he never does. He talks about getting the books on agriculture, on herding and hunting, on maintaining the plumbing; he never does. He takes great comfort in the presence of this monument to Western learning, but he rarely takes any advantage of it. Nor does anyone else.
Ish also considers education in general important. He muses frequently about maintaining the light of scientific civilization for future generations; he believes it is vital that the children of the Tribe learn reading, writing, and arithmetic at the very least. He is the leader, and so the children are required to tolerate his schooling, and he holds school for decades for them. But they learn very little, and he shows very little initiative in ensuring that they do. Even reading, that most basic of all educated tasks, is a real struggle, and most of even his own children can read only a little, and haltingly. Why should they? They have food, water, homes, everything they need without any difficulty. Why should they learn anything that they don't need to survive? And surely reading, plugging around in dusty stacks of paper, isn't necessary for survival.
All except Joey.
Joey is Ish's youngest son, one of fraternal twins, and by far the brightest of the children of the Tribe. At one point, in fact, at school Joey is called on, and he picks up the book and reads with a fluency that Ish has not heard since the plague; the other children, for whom reading was a laborious task, are so impressed that that year is named the Year when Joey Read. Ish becomes convinced that Joey is the guarantee for the future; Joey is the one who can carry the torch of knowledge and education into the coming generations for the Tribe. He even takes Joey to the library, and Joey is suitably impressed and excited by the vast trove of information that is thus presented to him.
But a disease comes through the Tribe, and Joey is one of its victims. Joey will not be the future.
And, indeed, there is no future. School gradually peters out and dies; Ish no longer has the energy to teach, and no one else has an interest in learning. He teaches them how to make simple bows-and-arrows, and he sees in his old age, through Jack, that they have become experts in this art; but otherwise, very little of Ish's efforts to educate the youth come to any fruit. Even one generation after Ish's, when he is still hearty and hale, his own son is barely able to read the numbers on a road sign; another generation, and no one can read at all. This fundamental civilizational invention has died; all his own education, all his own speeches, are unable to preserve even this basic necessity. In this, at least, Ish has failed.
And yet, like the absence of church through most of the Tribe's existence, it doesn't matter. Human life is just eating, sleeping, reproducing, surviving. If reading is an important tool to do that, then by all means learn to read; if it isn't, then don't bother. Reading, like all of Ish's knowledge, is superfluous; nobody, ultimately not even Ish himself, really misses it.
Only surviving matters; thus, only things which contribute to that matter. Q.E.D.
Earth Abides is a fundamentally agnostic book, and so it is hard for a believing Catholic such as your author to give it a recommendation. It is a fascinating book, but it certainly isn't an inspiring one.
Indeed, mostly it's pretty depressing. While mankind survives, and in a certain sense even flourishes, it survives and flourishes on a level that is nearly animal rather than human. The Tribe's only reaches toward anything higher than immediate survival are fleeting and superficial, and it doesn't even recognize the value in such things as organized labor or the written word. Even other men outside the Tribe are a matter of nearly complete indifference; they are contacted by another group from across the Bay when Ish is old, and only initiate a relationship with them because they need new blood for marriages. Where Aristotle (correctly) observed that all men by nature desire to know, Stewart's novel posits that men merely wish to live, and only to know what is necessary for that.
Still, the book is not without its virtues. It is well-written and well-paced, and one does genuinely grow to care for many of the characters, especially for Ish, Em, Ezra, and Joey. One feels real sorrow when they die, and real sympathy for them when they have troubles.
Further, the novel makes great show of the importance of symbols and customs in the life of any people. While the Hammer becomes an object of incredible superstition, it serves much as the crown or scepter has in many of our old monarchies. The people need not only an authority, but a sign of that authority, and a solid thing that can be passed from one leader to the next. Men are fundamentally sacramental; we use symbols, in many ways, as what they represent. Stewart knows this, and the fact pervades the novel.
Lastly, Em is a character worth knowing. Her advices is not always good—it is, after all, Stewart's advice in her mouth—but her character is beautiful and strong. Indeed, she dies slowly, and is often in much pain, and Ish, who has been giving her such doses of painkillers as he can find and understand, contemplates inflicting so-called euthanasia on her. But—
Then after a while, when the pain again began to make her toss, he would think: “Perhaps I should make the dose larger still, and bring a finish to all pain.” But he did not. For she, he knew, had always reached out toward life, and her courage would not fail.… As it always had been, she was the one who comforted him, although she was the one who lay in pain and was going.…“Oh, Mother of Nations!” he thought. “Her sons shall praise, and her daughters call her blessed!”
Em is the one with the courage to keep Ish going when he is paralyzed by self-doubt. Em is the one who can cut through all the anxiety and worry to point at what is truly important. Em is the one, when the elders had to decide what to do with Charlie, who was unhesitant in what had to be done. While no great mind, Em has wisdom and courage. She is the guiding character of the whole novel; beside her, Ish is nearly just a bystander.
So Earth Abides can be a book worth reading, if one reads with a critical eye.