21 December 2007

Dated but thought-provoking look at the collapse of civilization

Earth Abides
George R. Stewart
Del Rey, 2006
"...and the government of the United States of America is herewith suspended, except in the District of Columbia, as of the emergency..."

With those ominous words begins a classic tale of the end of human civilization. "Ish" (a graduate student whose given name is Isherwood Williams) is the barely tolerable protagonist who survives a rattlesnake bite (and possibly some strange infection) only to leave the forest and find a world of ghost towns. As Ish discovers, while he was in seclusion, engaged in fieldwork for his thesis, a virulent plague broke out worldwide and eliminated virtually every other human being from the face of the earth. Instead of descending into a drunken madness like one of the few survivors he meets, Ish roadtrips across the country looking for a vestige of the learned civilization he remembers. Alas, his quest comes up empty-handed, for, as he discovers, not many people have survived the plague, and those who did are (understandably) not too interested in higher education or high culture, preferring instead to focus on subsistence and maintaining their sanity. Along the way he picks up a loyal friend in the form of a dog, and finally returns to the Bay Area of California, where he meets a group of survivors and sets out to re-establish some kind of human community. In the second half of the novel, we follow the growth of this community and are faced with Ish's growing apprehension about humanity's future. Much to his chagrin, the aspects of civilization he prizes so much--music and art appreciation, reading and literature, mathematics and philosophy, etc.--seem to have no place in this new world where humans are once again a part of the natural order and not her proud conquerors.

While the novel itself is quite a good read, filled with interesting speculative insights into human life after the collapse of modern civilization, Ish provides an aggravating example of the 1940s American white male ivory tower academic (his character's qualities definitely date the novel). When he encounters black survivors in the South, he muses about the possibilities of exploiting them and establishing his own little fiefdom. He continually considers his cohorts in the new community as his intellectual inferiors, even as they manage to carve out a new life in the face of this overwhelming calamity while he reads his books. That he spends more time worrying about the restoration of high civilization than about the very real issues of day-to-day survival that they face was also incredibly infuriating. Ish is at his most distasteful when he contemplates his son Joey, a boy whose sole worth seems to be the fact that he is bright and can read. Somehow, though, in spite of all his character flaws, Isherwood Williams ' arrogance and detachment are finally overcome by his circumstances, and he has, if not a complete change of heart, then at least an acceptance of the reality that "men go and come, but earth abides."

(This review was originally written on January 10, 2007.)

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