Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (SF Masterworks) (book review).

March 23, 2022 | By | 2 Replies More

George R. Stewart (1895-1980) wrote ‘Earth Abides’ in 1949. Just to cheer you up right now, the population of the USA has dipped to near zero, with very few people left alive after a plague. Isherwood ‘Ish’ Williams survived, largely because he was recovering from a snakebite and using anti-venom to recover. When he does, he finds the people in the town he was holidaying in deserted where people had fled and slowly builds up a picture of what has gone on. We follow his trip across America and the rare meeting with people with a hound companion called Princess along the way.

Bearing in mind the age of this book, you do have to wonder why he doesn’t come across more corpses. Yes, some had already been given funerals but, even with the cities, the population just seems to have vanished. We’re learnt a lot more about how populations go under in such circumstances over the years and you certainly wouldn’t want to live in cities in case you got infected. I doubt if all people died in their homes.

It’s obvious in the second part of the book that after twenty years, the colony that Ish Williams has founded is pretty average and none of them have any special skills, beyond repairs, and equipment and supplies are slowly dwindling. When their sons come back from a trip with a suspicious individual, they have to decide upon his fate.

Even that is too late as they get a different infection, typhoid, affecting their numbers.

The final part has a near blind Ish is his dotage and the area ingulfed in a forest fire, forcing them to flee to somewhere safer.

In many respects, the Science Fiction aspect is pretty much the downfall of mankind to plague. Anything else after that is the survival of mankind which is ultimately living off existing supplies before developing back to a farming or hunting community or a bit of both. That template tends to exist in all such stories. It also tends to demonstrate the lack of expertise and general knowledge in such communities. These days, scientific speciality is even more specialised. Hopefully, if I had to go into a factory making computer technology there are enough manuals to ensure I pressed all the right buttons.

‘Earth Abides’ was released in 1949 and we have moved on a lot in the past 75 years. I do wish new SF writers would not go over the same ground all the time and see what would happen if that modicum of average intelligence would try to keep some level of technology going than just slip back to the hunter culture.

Objectively and ‘Earth Abides’ is certainly the template you would have to wonder why the only SF is a world-wide plague and using better solutions to survive beyond farming. Oh, I should also point out that regardless of age, all Gollancz SF Masterworks are still in print and first-hand so have a look at their selection and you might find a missing classic you haven’t read,

GF Willmetts

March 2022

(pub: Gollancz, 1999. 312 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-857-98821-5)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

Comments (2)

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  1. Louis Sivo says:

    I have not read the book in quite awhile, but when I was younger it was one I revisited every few years. I felt it was very well done. The author focused on some elements others didn’t touch on. He mentions the infrastructure holding up at the start but of course as it degrades so does his hopes. He covers the year of the explosion of rats as they consume the corpses and whatever food is laying about. He has an undercurrent of that throughout the book.

    At one point he looks for others, but not many are found. He realizes he needs to learn farming and he fights to preserve knowledge by protecting a library and forbids his small group from messing with it. He pins his hope on one of his sons(?) who seems to “get it” though he’s a sickly child. It’s a losing proposition as he sees that while his group should survive, they have lost everything our civilization had attained. His knowledge is not enough. They have no connection to their past.

    I remember it being quiet story, not one that finds large groups battling each other for survival. There is no way in surviving that one man can teach the kids everything. You mention going into a factor and with enough manuals… Sadly, no. That would not work. Can you repair the machines, where do you get parts, the whole supply chain is gone. This book tells of our quiet slide to oblivion.

    It was one of my favorites.

    For a story where one has enough folks/experts to come around our modern world, I think it was Lucifer’s Hammer by Niven and Pournelle with a group trying to keep a nuclear reactor going. They realize if they fail it’s all over. If they can win, they can teach the next generation. That power plant was the source of a civilization continuing…

    But Earth Abides is not that story.

    • UncleGeoff says:

      Hello Louis
      Oh, I totally agree with you. It’s just that authors who followed just used the template and never developed it beyond that. Yes, I can understand the need for average characters to mnatch ‘average’ readers. Having a talented character would change the complexion. You only have to look at ‘The Omega Man’ to see how that can change things. I think a stronger message is learn different skills because you never know when they can come in handy.

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