Earth Abides is one of the most important books I have ever read. This is not an adventure novel or a thriller. There are no zombies and no roaming bands of cannibals. Instead, its focus is on the Earth in the wake of humanity's destruction and on the remaining humans who inhabit this bleak new world. It is a carefully honed experiment in anthropology and sociology. Its depth and complexity is astounding and it deserves to be ranked as one of the best novels of the twentieth century. It can be boring at times but it is truly brilliant, beautiful, sad, terrifying, and entirely worth the trouble. And the narrator is excellent and adds enormous value to the story.
The main character, Isherwood "Ish" Williams, watches as the world of man falls apart. He is an intellectual and an anxious man who fears that his tribe of survivor's easy lifestyle, thriving on the remains of the past, will cause humanity to revert into a primitive state. Ish takes upon himself the burden of maintaining human knowledge, building new traditions, a new state, and even a new civilization. His tribe, on the other hand, is content to live in an idyllic world where food is plentiful, disease is unknown, and there is little to fear.
Much of the novel is Ish's internal dialogue and the narrative tends to veer off on tangents. I occasionally found myself lost and had no idea what the author was talking about. And Stewart's attention to detail often gives the reader the sense that something is about to happen when, in fact, nothing does. Then there are other passages that the reader knows are going nowhere, such as the description of scenery, and reading feels like a chore.
Despite its flaws, Earth Abides is filled with so much wisdom regarding human psychology and the state of man in nature and in civilization, that it should be required reading for any college student studying sociology, anthropology, or even political science. This is a novel that I will remember forever.
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