You either get sci-fi or you don’t. Unfortunately sci-fi suffers from overexposure. There’s only so much bland teen dystopia you can digest before you see post apocalyptic as synonymous with boring.
One way to get away from the generic landscape is to go back, before the ideas everyone keeps stealing became cliche. I first heard of “Earth Abides” from Madusudan Katti, a scientist who researched wildlife in urban settlements. He recommended it highly, so I made a mental note of it and found a copy a year later.
Earth Abides was written all the way back in 1949 by George R. Stewart. He was an English professor and wasn’t really a science fiction writer. This makes the ideas he uses a bit more interesting since he isn’t really stuck in the genre. Or maybe he’s different because the genre was still young.
To make a long story short, our protagonist, Ish, comes down from the mountains to realize that some plague had wiped out most of humanity. There’s little fuss about the plague or humans. What makes the book interesting is how it concentrates on the wildlife. Ish travels across the country as the natural world slowly begins to adapt to a landscape no longer dominated by humans.
Slowly rats overrun civilization only to be wiped out by disease and a lack of food. The pedigree cats and dogs die swift deaths without human support, the cattle begin to run wild and weeds begin to grow in crop fields. The sheepdog still herd their flocks in the absence of their masters, keeping them safe from the now plentiful wolves and mountain lions. Ish can’t help but wonder how long they’ll keep guarding the helpless sheep.
The world didn’t die overnight, it took a few months, the streets are empty and not littered with bodies. People tried to keep order, stayed in and tried to deal the disease, making sure the power and water were still running. The roads are empty, the stores are still stocked. He drives picking whatever car he wants to, eating canned food that is abandoned. It’s not like there aren’t any people left either.
There are many; most of them can’t deal with the shock of losing civilization and still go about their day dazed and confused like most of the people they known haven’t died. They loot and steal, they are suspicious and keep to themselves. They stay in small groups, you need backup in a lawless world.
Eventually he settles down with a few others mostly because they had to and because they didn’t mind each other. They try to raise families while the crops slowly fail or give way to hardy native crops. They go from producers to scavengers living off what once was, but Ish does not realize it time to do anything. Eventually the water and power fail and most of Ish’s newly formed tribe are concerned with the many, many children they keep having.
I was a bit disappointed that the book seemed to shift away from describing the natural world but it stays interesting. Especially when it moves quickly, covering years at a time. Ish’s begins to realize that his attempts at preserving civilization fails. The children don’t care about his stories of yesterday, they know the world around them and not the stories from books that they have no use for. They begin to look inwards while Ish slowly comes to realize that his descendants no longer think or understand what he says. He outlives his original tribe to become a living relic. Disease, tribal hierarchy, crop and hostile tribes on unknown frontiers are what worry the people not skyscrapers.
As he dies he comes to see that just like the natural world around him has changed so too have the men that live in it. He simply watches as his people become a naturalistic, tribalistic society that see the world before them as a mythical time through an extremely superstitious lenses. The ending was really well done, a long buildup to justify the title. It’s an extremely enjoyable book and a surprisingly refreshing take. You can see why this was the first winner of the science fiction prize.