Monday, October 18, 2010

EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides is a 1949 science fiction novel by George R. Stewart. When a plague all but wipes out the human race, a young introverted intellectual decides to observe the way the world responds to the sudden removal of humans, and, later, works to reconstruct certain aspects of civilization while battling to keep education alive.

This is a thoughtful book: one of Stewart’s primary themes here is a philosophical take on civilization: its pros and cons, what is gained and lost through starting over, and whether parts or the whole are worth rebuilding. Stewart, with the world’s last scholar as his main character, does a wonderful job with this.

But while Earth Abides is all about ideas, Stewart mostly punts on the moral and theological ramifications, as his characters move on quickly when these themes present challenges. In a world where people can’t help but focus on death, that’s a missed opportunity.

In addition to the book’s philosophical emphasis, Stewart’s post-apocalyptic world is generally free of unrest and violence. While this allows Stewart to focus on his themes of rebuilding, his characters are rarely in much peril, and there’s never much suspense. Yet as Stewart charts the life of his protagonist through the years and decades, the reader becomes invested in and attached to the character, passive and powerless though he may be, and this is why the novel is compelling, and why the reader will not mind the book’s many philosophical detours.

On the whole, Earth Abides is an intelligent, poignant and melancholy novel, and one of the finer and more influential works in the genre. Bonus points for an interracial relationship during a hostile era.