Earth Abides

by George R. Stewart

Rating: ★★★★

Powerful, slightly depressing post-apocalyptic novel, with a clear focus on the nature of mankind's continuity in the face of such a tragedy. Exquisitely composed. Also an accidental pandemic-relevant read. Amusing to consider that Stewart, in 1949, could clearly predict a disease possibly arising from an animal reservoir, and cover all the points about connection and transmission. In fact, the novel is extremely cogent on the subject of disease, the role of disease in population control, and how communities must view strangers with suspicion because of disease.

Stewart really just nails this genre. He covers not only the personal -- Ish travelling the country in his old station wagon, watching the aftermath, meeting a few shaken survivors -- but the broader events, the fates of our domesticated animals and plants, the crumbling of our infrastructure. How the wandering shellshocked strangers eventually give way to the formation of small communities of the more resolute. The travails of a community living in the crumbling shadow of an ancient civilisation. The depressing inaction of survivors, unwilling to repair or learn in a world replete with material surplus, marvels of a bygone era.

Ultimately, Stewart makes the case that that very impulse -- to revive, to rebuild -- is doomed in such a small community. Few enough pre-collapse people are like Ish, actually interested in forward planning and building and study, especially when there is plenty of food and comfort for now. In a community of less than ten, he is likely alone, and the odds of any of the first generation to follow being similarly inclined are probably even slimmer given the nurture aspect. There is not enough collective will there to grapple with the colossal inheritance of a dead culture, to fix water systems or repair bridges, to learn about the world beyond the horizon. So the main thing is to set a few things in motion. Teach the children a few games that keep some useful skills alive. Customs for how the tribe makes decisions, symbols of authority. The rest is out of our hands.