Earth Abides, a 1949 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by Berkeley English professor George R. Stewart, tells the story of the fall of civilization from deadly disease and its rebirth. Set in the United States in the 1940s, it deals with Isherwood Williams, Emma, and the community they founded. The survivors live off the remains of the old world, while learning to adapt to the new. Along the way they are forced to make tough decisions and choose what kind of civilization they will rebuild.
Earth Abides won the inaugural International Fantasy Award in 1951. It was included in Locus Magazine's list of best All Time Science Fiction in 1987 and 1998 and was a nominee to be entered into the Prometheus Hall Of Fame. In November 1950, it was adapted for the CBS radio program Escape as a two-part drama starring John Dehner.
Earth Abides takes place in the United States during the 1940s, largely in Berkeley, California area, within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. Most of the Earth's population has perished from a virulent airborne disease. Isherwood Williams, who had been living in a solitary California mountain cabin, is one of the survivors of the pandemic. He emerges from his scientific studies in the mountains to find his entire world barren of people. Ish explores the empty world and then settles down with a handful of survivors to begin the process of restoring the human race and civilization.
While working on his graduate studies in biology, Ish is bitten by a rattlesnake. As he heals from the bite, he gets sick with a disease that looks like measles. He recovers and makes his way back to civilization, only to discover that most people died from the same disease he had just gotten over. He goes home, to Berkeley. As he travels, he observes the world in the light of ecology, watching it adapt to the loss of humans. Near his home he comes across a pet dog who seems set to starve to death without its owner who swiftly adopts Ish as her new master and sticks by him for much of the book. Ish meets few human survivors—a man drinking himself to death, a couple who seem to have lost their sanity, and a teenage girl who flees from him as someone dangerous. Wondering if this is typical of humanity, he sets out on a cross country tour, traveling all the way to New York City and back, scavenging for food and fuel. As he travels, he finds small pockets of survivors, whom he doubts will survive the loss of civilization, and he returns to his home in California.
He finds a woman, Emma (Em), to be his wife, and they have children. They are joined by other survivors. Over time the electricity fails and the comforts of civilization recede. As the children grow, Ish tries to instill basic academics, teaching reading, arithmetic and geography.
Ish turns his attention from ecology to his newly forming society. One thing that he notices is that the children are becoming very superstitious. One day Ish asks for his hammer, which he carries around, and finds the children are afraid to touch it. It is a symbol for them of the old times. The long-dead Americans are now like gods—and Ish too.
Ish becomes disturbed at his community's lack of ambition to learn and work. He tries to motivate them so often with speeches that the kids think this is simply his line, safe to be ignored. In an attempt to motivate them, Ish mentions the idea of a cross country exploration, and his son Robert and another boy Richard start out in a jeep.
Robert and Richard return from their trip. They explored east across the country until they met impassible roads near Toledo, Ohio. They discovered several societies in their travels including a black family who Ish had met on his cross-country journey years earlier. They brought back a man named Charlie, who gives Ish a bad feeling. Soon it is obvious that Charlie is after Evie, a girl the community regards as outside the acceptable gene pool—she has an adult body and the mind of a small child. Ish confronts Charlie and is intimidated; he feels alone and lost about what to do. Em takes control, calling a meeting of the adults. Ish isn't alone—they are a tribe. Under Em's insistence, the tribe's four adults vote on Charlie's fate. Em insists that they cannot wait until harm is done, that they have responsibility to protect their children. They unanimously vote to kill him.
The incident with Charlie makes Ish reflect that he is really not a nation builder, but he keeps trying. He begins practical lessons, such as planting corn. Then, typhoid fever erupts among them, perhaps carried by Charlie. Joey dies of typhoid, and this devastates Ish. With Joey gone, Ish decides teaching academic topics will be a fruitless effort. He worries what will become of his people when ammunition and matches are gone. He decides instead to teach his people to survive. He begins by inspiring the children to build bows and arrows.
The years flow by. Ish's lessons take—growing corn and playing with bows and arrows. Ish presides at meetings, his hammer a symbol of his status. He is given respect, but his ideas are not listened to by the younger men. The Tribe merges with another. The "Americans" (those born before the Great Disaster) die off, until only Ezra and Ish are left, two old men. After Ezra dies, Ish becomes a sort of god that the young men go to and demand answers from, the last American.
He spends most of his elderly life in a fog, unaware of the world. Superstition has set in; the tribe has reverted to a primitive lifestyle hunting with dogs (the descendants of Ish's first dog) and bow and arrow. Occasionally the fog in his mind lifts. During one such time, he finds himself aware of his great-grandson Jack, who stands before him. Jack shows him that the bow and arrow have become more reliable than the gun, whose cartridges don't always work. The children of the world are taking the toys of their youth and improving them on their own. During his last lucid moments, Ish realizes that the former civilization is now totally gone. But he also wonders if the new world is that much worse off than the old world, and finds himself hoping that the new world will not rebuild civilization and its mistakes.
Isherwood Williams (Ish) is a graduate student at Berkeley, studying the ecology of an area in the mountains, somewhere in California. As an ecologist, one who studies the relationships of living things to one another and to their environment, he is an ideal person to understand just what happens to the world when humans are abruptly removed from the picture. Isherwood thinks of himself as a loner—not the kind of person to become a leader of people—but that is precisely what happens to him. After he survives the Great Disaster, he spends some time observing the world without humans. Beyond initial shock, he doesn't seem to miss them too much. He comes to be a leader, mainly because he is the only surviving intellectual in his area. He realizes his weaknesses with people, however, and comes to rely on the talents of those around him, especially his wife Em.
Emma (Em) is a woman who Isherwood meets in his hometown. The author may have been taking a chance with this character, who is African-American, while Isherwood is white; when the book was written, interracial marriages were heavily discouraged in American society. Isherwood does marry her, and race isn't important to the couple's relationship. Rather, the couple become partners in their marriage and in their leadership of the community. Em becomes the community's mother, letting it grow as it will, but stepping in to help when no one else is filling the leadership role. She is the one who rallies the community when an outsider, Charlie, threatens it. It is she who brings up the idea that the community cannot wait until their children are harmed, that the value of protecting the children trumps the value of justice. She is the one who showed no fear when the community was stricken by typhoid fever. She was the adult while others panicked, and Ish thought of her as the "Mother of Nations.
Princess is a beagle that adopts Ish. She plays a role in introducing Ish to Em, and helping him to overcome his fears. Her descendants also play a major part in the development of the tribe.
Ezra met Emma and Ish while traveling. They liked him, but feared the complications of a love triangle, so he left. He returned with Molly and Jean, his wives . Ish values Ezra as a good judge of people.
Molly is the older of Ezra's two wives, about 35 when Ish and Em meet her.
Jean is "a younger woman," and one of Ezra's two wives.
Evie is a "half grown girl" who Ezra found living "in squalor and solitude." She appears to have little mind left, if she ever had one, and everyone cares for her. The tribe has a rule, that as the children grow no one will marry her—she wouldn't understand, and her mental condition could possibly be hereditary.
George and Maurine are a older couple found by Ezra while traveling. George is a carpenter. George is "dull" and Maurine is "stupid. George becomes the fix-it man for the Tribe.
Joey is the son of Ish and Em. Of all the children in the Tribe, he is the only one that truly gets the academic skills that Ish tries to teach—geometry, reading, geography. Ish thinks of him as the hope for the tribe, in the quest to restore civilization.
Jack is Ish's great-grandson. Jack is confident and possibly a leader. Ish sees something of Joey in him. When Ish dies, he gives Jack his hammer.
Within a few pages he makes it clear that basic biology applies to humans too:
In freeing the landscape from humans, half of the book is devoted to looking at how the world would change in their absence. Stewart chose to make his main human character an ecologist, and sends him on a cross country tour, to see what the world is like without people. As animals and plants no longer have humans taking care of them or controlling them, they are free to breed uncontrolled and to prey upon one another. The main character sees that some have been under humans so long that they are helpless in the face of change, while others are still able to adapt and survive. Stewart shows that humans have routinely influenced the lives of almost every plant and animal around them.
And like a candle, a child living in primitive conditions can easily be snuffed by the environment.
In the struggle to survive, natural selection culls humans whose culture isn't survival oriented; if skills and customs don't work in the new situation, these die out, or those holding them do. Children adapt naturally to the new situation, and immediately-useful customs and skills are more interesting to them than reading and writing. The information in libraries is useless within a generation.
Another issue he brings up is how law and order will function, when the lawmakers, courts and enforcers are all gone. Even laws won't be immune to the pressure to survive. One of the characters in the book point out, "What laws?" when they have to determine the fate of an outsider. Stewart shows how people may come to worry about potential harm rather than justice when dealing with outsiders.
A 1949 book review says that Earth Abides parallels two biblical stories that shows mankind spreading out and populating the world:
Stewart, who specialized in meanings of names, chose names in Hebrew that have appropriate meanings for the biblical theme; this couple who restart the human tribe are literally man and mother. Ish means “man” in Hebrew, and Em means “mother”.
In addition to the Hebraic names in Earth Abides, the story also has a symbol in common with biblical tradition—the snake. Ish encounters a rattlesnake; before this event he is part of a larger civilization. After it bites him, his world changes, just as the snake changes Adam's world in the Genesis story. Adam loses paradise, and Ish finds civilization dead.
Aside from the biblical origin of Ish, there is another tale of the fall of civilization that George R. Stewart could have taken account of, the story of Ishi, the last of his tribe, who lived at Berkeley while Stewart was there. Ish is very similar to Ishi, and it also means "man", in the language of a man whose whole tribe was dead. Ishi's story parallels the Genesis and Earth Abides stories, telling of one who has to adapt to a changed world.
Earth Abides fits into the "post-apocalyptic" sub-genre of Science Fiction. It was published in 1949, four years after the end of World War II and in the earliest stages of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. While post-apocalyptic fiction is now quite common, Earth Abides distinctly predates many similar well-known novels including Alas, Babylon (1959), A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), and The Last Ship (1988). It is predated, however by The Scarlet Plague (1912), The Time Machine (1895), The Machine Stops 1928, and Anthem (1936).
A common theme of post-apocalyptic works is, "What if the world we know no longer exists., and each of these books paints a different picture of the future. Earth Abides explores such issues as family structure, education, the meaning and purpose of civilization, and the basic nature of humankind — especially in regard to religion, superstition, and custom. As it was written in the beginning years of the cold war, it lacks some common post-apocalyptic conventions found in later novels: there are no warlords or biker gangs (as in Mad Max); there is no fear of atomic weapons or radiation, no mutants and no warring tribes (as in A Canticle for Leibowitz).
It was mentioned in a serious overview of modern science fiction, Contemporary Science Fiction by August Derleth, in the January 1952 edition of College English. Derleth called it an "excellent example" of the "utopian theme" of "rebuilding after a holocaust leaving but few survivors."
It was described as a persuasive answer to the question, "What is man," in the October, 1973 edition of Current Anthropology. The article "Anthropology and Science Fiction" examines the nature of Science Fiction and its relationship to understanding people. The magazine concluded of Earth Abides that it shows ..."man is man, be he civilized or tribal. Stewart shows us that a tribal hunting culture is just as valid and real to its members as civilization is to us."
In the 1959 review of On the Beach, Earth Abides mechanism of death for the world, "a mysterious plague, arisen from some obscure ecological imbalance" was seen as not up to date. To the reviewer, a rain of radioactive particles was more current.
The article "Population in Literature" by Lionel Shriver from the Population and Development Review, June 2003, found the reverse. "Most doomsday novels feature war or disease...with the fears of the bomb receding, and AIDS in ascendancy, plague novels have become more in vogue."
In the American Quarter article California's Literary Regionalism, Autumn 1955, George R. Stewart is seen as a "humanist in the old classical sense. His novels, Storm, Fire, East of the Giants, Earth Abides, demonstrate the complex interlocking of topography, climate, and human society; and their general tone is objective and optimistic."
Stewart also mentions Ecclesiastes 1:4 in the title and theme: "Men go and come, but Earth abides