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Earth Abides: Stewart's dark eulogy for humankind

The worst thing about new books, French philosopher Joseph Joubert wrote, is that they keep us from reading the old ones.

Which is precisely how a truly great novel like George R. Stewart's Earth Abides gets, if not lost, then seriously mislaid. Published in 1949, the same year as Orwell's 1984 and two years after Camus' The Plague, Earth Abides regularly appears on lists of great science fiction yet remains virtually unknown to any larger readership. In one 43-page overview of Stewart's work, Earth Abides receives a single paragraph of five lines. And despite its having won the 1951 International Fantasy Award, even among science fiction fans the novel is little read or recognized.

This is a book, mind you, that I'd place not only among the greatest science fiction, but among our very best novels.

Each time I read it, I'm profoundly affected, affected in a way only the greatest art — Ulysses, Matisse or Beethoven symphonies, say — affects me. Epic in sweep, centering on the person of Isherwood Williams, Earth Abides proves a kind of antihistory, relating the story of humankind backwards, from ever-more-abstract civilization to stone-age primitivism.

Everything passes — everything. Writers' reputations. The ripe experience of a book in which we find ourselves immersed. Star systems, worlds, states, individual lives. Humankind.

Few of us get to read our own eulogies, but here is mankind's. Making Earth Abides a novel for which words like elegiac and transcendent come easily to mind, a novel bearing, in critic Adam-Troy Castro's words, "a great dark beauty."

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By the first page, a viral plague has all but factored mankind from the world's equation. Graduate student Isherwood Williams awakes from a sojourn in the wilderness and near death from a snake bite to stagger back towards civilization only to find it missing. Humankind has moved out and left no forwarding address.

Eventually Ish encounters a handful of others, the most important of them Em, who becomes his lifelong companion and proves the first to bear a child into this new world. Their terrible uncertainty (will children inherit the parents' immunity to the plague?) reflects the fear of every prospective parent as to whether or not his/her child can survive the world's harshness.

Meanwhile, a dialectic builds. Ish longs to maintain civilization, to give continued voice to the old ways, to preserve them. Libraries must be barricaded to preserve them from predators; wells must be dug; children must be taught.

But Ish's entreaties, even to himself, are little more than that. A product of abstracted society, what does he know of how water is collected and purified, of how meat is cured? Which of us would?

And for the earth's new inhabitants, his stories are at best myths of a distant world. Here, now, they can get all they need by scavenging. The new world's children see no need for the "knowledge" Ish espouses. It has no relevance to their daily lives. As always, parents and children face one another across a great divide.

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Post-apocalyptic fiction is a mainstay, of course. Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Edgar Pangborn's Davy, Walter Tevis' Mockingbird and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, to forage among classics of the genre. Critics John Clute and Peter Nichols hold that the subgenre appeals to a universal longing for escape from the constraints of organized society, to the individual's unique opportunity, excised from society, to prove himself. (A return to America's great myth of the frontiersman?) Such extremes afford a window onto the very stuff of which mankind is composed — much as Wallace Stegner wrote that Stewart's Storm (1941) depicts "the mortar that holds a civilization together." Still, generally the unvoiced assumption is that civilization will rebuild itself.

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Ish's assumption is the same. But civilization will not rebuild itself. It will only, inevitably, decay.

The novel breaks into three sections. The first limns Ish's awakening to knowledge of the catastrophe and his slow building of a community. There follows the tale of a year in which the struggle between old and new culminates; then that of the emergence of a primitive society. Brief sections in italics recount the erasure, measure by measure, of humankind's footprints. Cities collapse into themselves. Domestic animals disappear. Wilderness encroaches.

In the passing of a world, individual deaths might seem of little note. Two, however, are particularly chilling. The execution of outsider Charlie marks the new society's transition from democracy to heirarchy. And that of Joey, onto whose fierce intelligence Ish has come to project all his hopes, signals the last hurrah of old values.

The hammer that Ish has brought with him out of the old world, the sort of hammer John Henry might have had, becomes, finally, not a symbol of creation, but of endurance. Each year, ritualistically, Ish carries it above the village to chisel the number of the new year onto a stone there. Dying, he passes it to a new patriarch. That icon, and the reintroduction of the bow and arrow, prove Ish's true contributions to the emergent society.

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George R. Stewart's creative life ran forty-plus years, from a landmark biography of Bret Harte in 1931 to a major narrative of the Donner party, numerous volumes of the history of the American west, the novels Fire and Storm and five others — 28 books in all. Earth Abides was something of a sport. Yet it seems to me that, if remembered at all, Stewart will be remembered for this novel.

Art's mission is to make our lives large again, to dredge us out of this terrible dailyness. I begin each reading of Earth Abides knowing that, once the flight's done, I'll be meeting a new man there at the end of the concourse. The guy who got on the flight's okay. I like the one who gets off a lot better.

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