Thursday, August 12, 2010

Humanity Dies, Earth Abides

There is an interesting article by Kenneth Brower in the Summer issue of California Magazine (the UC Berkeley Alumni Magazine) about re-reading the work of George R. Stewart, with a particular focus on Stewart's famous post-apocalyptic novel Earth Abides

Earth Abides starts with a quote from from Nobel-prize winning biochemist and virologist Wendell M. Stanley.
If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation . . . it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people 
~ WM Stanley in Chemical and Engineering News, Dec. 22, 1947
That's the premise that sets the story in motion: a "super measles" plague breaks out that kills almost every living human, (not to mention our close biological cousins the apes). UC Berkeley graduate student Isherwood Williams - Ish - happens to hiking in the mountains, working on his graduate thesis The Ecology of the Black Creek AreaIsh is bitten by a rattlesnake, which lays him up for days in an empty cabin. It isn't until he returns towards the Bay Area that he realizes that amazoeveryone - or almost everyone is dead.

After driving across the United States and back1, he returns to his home - a thinly disguised Berkeley. He checks that the great University library is intact, and keeps that knowledge to himself as a sort of thin link to the civilization that died. He meets a few other survivors and the form a Tribe.

Meanwhile nature begins to take back the spaces that humanity used to fill. Cats and dogs and cattle go wild, and plants begin to overgrow the buildings.
As with the dogs and cats, so also with the grasses and flowers which man had long nourished. The clover and the blue-grass withered on the lawns, and the dandelions grew tall. In the flowerbed the water-loving asters wilted and drooped, and the weeds flourished. Deep within the camellias, the sap failed; they would bear no buds next spring. The leaves curled on the tips of the wisteria vines and the rose bushes, as they set themselves against the long drought. Foot by foot the wild cucumbers quickly sent their long vines across lawn and flowerbed and terrace. As once, when the armies of the empire were shattered and the strong barbarians poured in upon the soft provincials, so now the fierce weeds pressed in to destroy the pampered nurslings of man. 
There is a plague of ants, which lasts until the ant population crashes. That's followed by plagues of rats and grasshoppers and even cattle.  Mountain lions prowl the campus and dogs run in menacing packs. The message is that it takes time for the ecosystems of the depopulated Earth to become rebalanced in the absence of humans.

The Berkeley setting isn't particularly surprising, given that Stewart was a UC Berkeley Professor of English.  In his article, Brower notes that it's likely Stewart's ideas were influenced by his fellow faculty members (in addition to Wendell Stanley, quoted above):
The writer Ernest Callenbach (who himself owes a debt to Stewart for his California-of-the-future novel Ecotopia) supposes that Stewart's sensibilities must have been shaped at Faculty Club lunches with brilliant Berkeley scholars like the paleontologist Charles Camp, the geographer Carl Sauer, the wildlife biologist Starker Leopold, and the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. (The Kroeber connection seems especially likely. "Ish" is doubtless a nod to Dr. Kroeber's friend and subject, Ishi, the California Yahi, last of his tribe and the final "wild" Indian in North America.)

Geographer Sauer, for example, rejected environmental determinism - the idea that the physical environment determines culture - and instead focused on the effect of humans on their environment, drawing some of his ideas from the work of Kroeber. As mentioned above, Kroeber is best known for his work with Ishi2, the last member of his tribe, much the same way Ish is one of the last of his kind.

Despite all that, the science in Earth Abides mostly appears as asides to the main story.  The novel is about Ish, his life after the Great Disaster and his death. I think that's one of the reasons the novel doesn't appeal that much to me.

Ish is a loner at heart, both before and after the Great Disaster. He is unable to effectively interest his fellow survivors (and later their children) with his book-based knowledge, and he and his Tribe spend decades living off canned food scrounged from supermarkets and the water still running through the municipal water pipes rather than setting up a sustainable system to feed themselves.  I want Ish to do more, to care more, to get some form of civilization up and running. I suppose I want intellectualism to be important to survival, not an affectation of no particular use for survival.

And another thing I've noticed on recently re-reading Earth Abides, is how much is a book for men. The women who survive the plague spend their time having babies and keeping house and being "given" to the men as partners. A depressing future.

Earth Abides was the first winner of the International Fantasy Award, and influenced many post-apocalyptic novels that followed, including Steven King's The Stand.

While the novel isn't one of my favorites, I think it's final message is true: whatever happens to humanity, the Earth and its other inhabitants will continue on without us.

Read "Natural Affinities: Reading George Stewart in Antarctica" by Kenneth Brower.
Earth Abides at (affiliate link)

1. Earth Abides was first published in 1949, before the creation of the interstate highway system. I found it amusing that when Ish starts driving across the desert and really lets the car fly he's only traveling at 80 miles per hour.

2. Of course in science fiction circles Alfred Kroeber is probably best know as the father of Ursula Le Guin. His work clearly influenced Le Guins own fiction.

Top Image: Ruined Church © Copyright Jonathan Wilkins and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Bottom Image: Berlin Ghost Town by Snowfalcon

1 comment:

  1. The 2007 non-fiction The Earth Without Us by Alan Weisman is well researched and well written.

    Women revert to chattel status in almost all post-apocalyptic futures. This is depressing, whether it's a realistic extrapolation or a failure of the imagination.


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