Earth Abides: A review

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.

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Hotel match

I keep a photo of two strangers. I rescued them out an old match box from a hotel, brought home some 3 decades ago. On the matchbox it says “Mountain View. Visit Again.” Both box and picture are yellow and dirty. You wouldn’t watch to trace your finger along the inn and mountains drawn on the box, the paint is so aged the mountains might lose the inn.

The remaining matches are frail and could never dream of working. One wonders why no one gave in to the temptation to strick a match a burn the picture. Why was it there anyway? Maybe it was supposed to be burned, the two grinning men without a harsh work between them.

Night by the sea

That summer we stayed with her aunt who smelt of cut grass and ghee. We walked the beaches, pretend nomads with face scarfs till a dog rushed out of a patch of wild flowers and begged for a game. Bored cattle strayed past, watching the sea while grazing. That night the sea’s breeze and scent carried through the window. The dog sat happy after the meal we gave him. She put on some music and the dog tried to bark in tune. She danced till her footsteps on the hardwood floor was all I could hear. When I woke up the french windows were open, she had a flower under her foot and a smile on her face.

Abdul

Abdul cannot remember anything.

The questions are rare now because they know a “No” will invariably follow. Occasionally there are flashes in those glassy eyes but who would notice? Now and then images will consume him.

Bright robes dirtied by runs through the markets. Seated figures and gossip under the old mango tree. Their wares spread out on rough cloth, they watch him fly his silk kites and ignore the cuts the thread gives him.

“No” he repeats to no one as he looks out his window. Surely the city and roads of tar were always there. “Surely I dreamt.”

To be written

Yellow, tattered, bound by leather

the empty pages still do entice.

 

A long adventure must have surely befallen

this new companion who has not a word spoken.

But now to the silent fossil I have taken

with pen and paper; a new story in it written.

 

A constant purpose, a prophesy fulfilled

a page now- not unspoken.

 

Book Scavenging

The heat of the mid-day sun seemed to have seeped into the basement where we pawed through book, our fingers getting dirtier by the minute.

We were done with our practicals early and being unwilling to head home or brave the heat we choose to stay in college. A friend mentioned that old books where stored away in the basement, awaiting disposal, and when he mentioned that these books were as free as air, I sighed and realized I’d have major back pain by the time I got home. I pushed my laptop around and made room while we spiraled down the stairs.I couldn’t help but hope we’d find something extraordinary.

I had known about the pile before, but back then I imagined it was this secret stash meant to stay hidden in the basement. The basement is a cold,dark area that burrows under the science block. Quite a few people label it “shady” and find themselves peering uncomfortably into the dark trying to  figure out if they’re alone down there. The last time I visited the pile, I had stuck my hands through dusty metal grills older than me and looked at attendance registers from the fifties. The basement is meant for staff only, so looking through names from the last century in a dusty,dark corner was rather thrilling.

But now I knew that I could take those books away. The pile had diminished considerably and had transformed into a scattered dump of books. The basement was damp, made me sweat and rather disappointingly wasn’t as dark as it was the last time I was there.My friends and I set about hopping over and going through the books. I didn’t see any registers and most of what we came across were old science textbooks (no wonder they were being thrown away). They were all hardbound and quite a few were more older than all our ages combined.

My finger grew dusty as I dug up book, books that never seemed to get any cleaner no matter how I tried. I picked up 3 magazines- the first called mainstream, (complaining that everything is too mainstream is a running joke in my circle of friends), a torn up copy of a magazine whose name seemed impossible to figure out, and another that demanded Modi resign all the way back in 2002. The laughs that it cause was worth the trip down here. I also picked up two ancient books on sociology. One had the name of my friend Deb on it, I texted him asking him if he was a time traveler. He explained that his fetish for social equality gave him super-powers. I also found a almanac from 1963 that was probably owned by a racist -the sections on Africa and the middle east were torn out.

I wish I had raided the pile before anyone else had gotten to it, but I can’t say I’m unhappy with my loot. I would have taken a lot more if I could have, maybe some of those issue from the 79 volumes on Gandhi’s sayings…

An Old Phtograph

I don’t really have many pictures of myself when I was young, I was far to self-conscious and would scatter the second I heard some eager creature with a camera. So when I realize that my makeshift mouse-pad was an old picture of me on my 8th birthday I was quite startled.

I’d say something cliché like “memories came rushing back”, but really, that isn’t the truth. The picture felt like a rough jab because it reminded me that the memory -or even memories were always around. I remember what T-shirts people wore, how they smelt and where my dog had bitten three of my friends. It’s like writing a word on paper, closing your eyes and recalling every curve,swish and dot. On the left, my other wise pretty cousin is on the sofa with us, mouth wide open ready to chomp on a slice of chocolate cake she holds. I am in between. I look anorexic you’d think my cousin was inspired to enjoy her meal because of my plight yet I smile away trying to adjust my red birthday cap. My father sits on the right with his hand awkwardly feeling the wall behind the sofa. He looks like a cat about to be run over.

Most of those parties always went the same way. My dad would yell and throw a fit about me not helping him decorate, I’d ask him why people need birthdays in the first place (while I wondered why I had to decorate if the whole thing was about me). My father wears a simple white shirt and looks 40. He’s looked like he’s 40 ever since he finished high school. Now he’s 55 and still looks 40.

My cousin and I, both skinny and young, both in bright yellow hand me downs and with birthday caps that just won’t stay on our heads look like natural allies. She was almost done with high-school  by then, but had not yet learnt how to avoid getting yelled at by the many aunts who inhabited the mansion. Back then I never understood why she was so eager to drag me away from cartoon network, and talk to me about the most random things. I never got why people kept telling her to go ask her mother to pay her bills. We’d sit by the little outlook on the hill and count the number of black cars and buses that needed a wash. She’d talk about how she’d have to dig up graves to find teeth so she could study dentistry.

I forgot about her entirely when my mother and I left that old house and that part of the family. In my defense I was a kid, I never got her rants about her nokia and pink cycle. I saw her again 3 years ago when both of us went back to the old house. We shrugged and said “meh” to everyone else there. We saw each other. We shrugged and said “meh”. She had a kid apparently.

It’s an odd photo. Very obviously candid. None of us seem affected by the din that must have been taking place in the center of the room. There only three of us three, on a sofa colored like pencil lead, against a bland green wall. For some reason that image always seems to simple,recent and familiar to forget.