A disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of the globe, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he ultimately discovers will prove far more astonishing than anything he'd either dreaded or hoped for.
NOTE: This 60th anniversary edition of Earth Abides includes a special introduction written and read by Hugo Award-winning writer Connie Willis.
©1949, renewed 1976 by George R. Stewart; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
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.
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
If you are looking for a page-turning, violent-action-packed post-holocaust story like in the movies Road Warrior or I Am Legend, look elsewhere. Stewart's Earth Abides is much more quiet, poetic, beautiful, and thoughtful, though it surely packs many emotional punches and has plenty of suspense, once you submerse yourself in his world and characters.
I like Ish (Isherwood Williams), Stewart's protagonist. He's humane, thoughtful, sensitive, honest, and brave as he tries to live "creatively" in a world in which humanity has been almost completely wiped out via a quick-acting virus. Ish's attempts to find surviving kindred spirits and to rebuild civilization are moving. Stewart's detailed descriptions of the processes by which nature reclaims or transforms the traces of human civilization like roads, buildings, and cultivated flora and fauna are vivid; his speculations (through Ish) about human nature, civilization, race, gender, religion, love, life, and death are stimulating; his use of symbols like Ish's hammer, the university library, and the Bay Bridge are rich. The novel possesses a biblical (Old Testament) grandeur and pathos leavened by quiet humor. Despite being published in 1949, it doesn't seem dated. As other reviewers have noted, many scenes remain with you long after you close the book (or turn off your player).
The introduction by Connie Willis is heartfelt, interesting, and concise.
Finally, Jonathan Davis does a great job reading this book (as he does with The Windup Girl), infusing Stewart's detailed story with plenty of wit and emotion and humor and generally speaking in a pleasing reading voice that amplifies the text without trying to dominate it.
I focus on fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, science, history, politics and read a lot. I try to review everything I read.
Some might argue this is novel is dated. Perhaps in some ways it is, but if only as one of the first great post-apocalyptic fiction novels it is worth a listen. Yet it is more than that. This novel has a subtle greatness. It is one of the relatively few novels that continues to affect me days, weeks, months and even years later. I first listened to Earth Abides years ago right after finishing Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party which impressed me as being both detailed and touching. Earth Abides is also well written and humanistic and was also much better, a Sci Fi classic. Beyond that, Earth Abides transcends its genre approaching true greatness. This is not to say the novel has no faults, I see the faults, yet I can’t bring myself to point them out. I highly recommend Earth Abides. The narration is excellent adding to the experience.
This sci-fi/post Armageddon book was written in 1949, and I hesitated to buy it from Audible because of its publication date. A terrible disease wipes out most of the human population of earth leaving only a few stragglers to continue the race. Ish (the protagonist, Ishram Williams) is in the mountains during the epidemic, and thanks to a rattlesnake bite (he believes), he survives the plague though he is very ill.
Ish's attempt to guarantee the success of mankind over future generations is the direction of the book. His success (or lack thereof) is what makes the story work. I kept trying to think of it as it would be written today, but really there isn't much difference. The libraries have real card catalogs, things are not so dependent on electronics, vehicles don't work the same way, but all in all, the story doesn't have that feel of obsolescence I was expecting.
I laughed, I cried, I suffered with Ish in his realizations about humanity. There are scenes in that book I will never forget -- the deserted University library, the rusting and abandoned Golden Gate Bridge, the little dog begging Ish for recognition. Stewart dealt with racial barriers in a way that is completely unexpected in a book written in 1949. His concerns with the future of mankind are clear and obvious (and still as pertinent as they were 60 years ago).
This is an intense book, not a light read, but it is entertaining and thought provoking. I find myself wondering how I would react in a world nearly devoid of people with no running water or electricity. Curse it, it makes me think.
I read all the time, or nearly. I always have, I guess, since I was very young ... and now, getting older, more audio than any other medium.
I have read this book ... in print ... many times over the years and have owned many copies of it, passed along to friends and acquaintances who presumably passed it along to yet others.
I think what is MOST wonderful about the book is not, as I have heard some reviewers comment, that it is the "the original disaster story," but rather that it is a book of enormous hope.
Civilization may come and go, but Earth Abides. It's in the title.
I was listening to Connie Willis' introduction to the book and realized that she had missed something because, well, she doesn't read or speak Hebrew. I do, if badly, speak and understand Hebrew so I knew that "Ish" (pro: eesh) means, in Hebrew "Man, and in some contexts, "husband" while Emma (in Hebrew, pro: eema) means "Mother." Is it a bizarre coincidence the the two characters who begin the rebuilding are thus named?
I think not.
So in this book, though all the things of mankind perish when most humans are rather tidily eliminated, Earth does indeed abide and humankind reinvents civilization as it has before and quite probably will again.
It is a disaster (certainly for all those who died), but it is the beginning of everything too.
It is a wonderful book and despite the lack of computers and other electronic gadgets, the book is not particularly dated. How long, after all, would the internet function without people to fix downed servers, electronic glitches etc. How fast would our cell phones cease having service?
As science fiction goes, this is one of the greatest. As philosophy goes, it's not bad either! Also, incidentally, very well written and rather poetic.
As a major fan of the post-apocalyptic novel, I must say that "Earth Abides" stands among the best of its era (1950s), alongside "On the Beach," and "Alas, Babylon." The story focuses not on what happens to society in general, but rather on the experiences of one man, Isherwood Williams, and his immediate circle of family and friends. Isherwood's thoughts and musings about life and death form the greater part of the narrative. The audiobook features an excellent narration of a novel that, I'm certain, presented a lot of challenges due to its downbeat tone and general lack of "action." No doubt fans of movie magic and dramatic end-of-the world fireworks will find this book dull. The impact is subtle and filtered through the eyes of the philosophies and observations of the protagonist. Nonetheless, this book is a treasure for those who are patient and who do not require intense action scenes in every chapter.
I read this book first 30 years ago in college. It became one of my favorite books ever even after all these years. This is not your typical apocalyptic novel with undercurrents of aliens or walking dead. It is a straightforward tale of a man who lives his life on the earth almost devoid of human life. It describes in detail the gradual decay of all that humankind built over 5000 years as the earth reclaims its own. It also tells the story of a small group of individuals that make a life and even a community amid the vestiges of a bygone world of machines and remnants of mankind's achievements. It truly is a book that will stick with you for the rest of you life.
Audible puts this book in the sci-fi category, but if you're not a sci-fi person, don't let that scare you off this amazing book. The narration is done incredibly well and the story of the fall and rise of civilization feels so authentic I didn't want to leave these characters behind after the book was over. Highly recommended 'listen'.
I value intelligent stories with characters I can relate to. I can appreciate good prose, but a captivating plot is way more important.
Post-apocalyptic fiction is my favorite genre. So many aspects of the story of the world after civilization captivate me, that I always find something fascinating in every telling. In this novel, Stewart's real novelty and strength is in the observations of the end of the world through a thoroughly scientific mind. Bonus points for waxing philosophic and providing unexpectedly thoughtful details.
Stewart shines in his detailed symphony of decay-- he gives thought to infrastructure and nature and mankind themselves. It is a long journey, and I understand how some people could find the book tedious. I enjoyed the plodding pace because so often it sent my mind to wander in new directions.
The book has several minor flaws, and a couple of unforgivable flaws:
The minor flaws involve the scientific details like failing to realize that gasoline goes stale after a time, Ish's failure to ever experience grief of any kind, and the complete omission of what happened to the hundreds of millions of corpses that should have been lying around.
The first major flaw that very nearly ruined the book for me was Ish's and the Tribe's thoroughly unrealistic failure to educate their children. This flaw is so central to the story that had I been in a different mood, I may just as easily have given this book a rating as low as two stars.
Here's the problem: Ish, a man of superior intellect, is surrounded by adults who are not as smart as he is-- but beyond their failure to qualify as intellectuals themselves, they actively laugh at Ish's repeated pleas to steer the Tribe and it's children back towards a civilized life style.
Even this unlikely reaction may have been believable had the author justified it with dialog, and laid the fault firmly at the feet of the idiot Tribe adults. But that never happens. Ish never delivers a compelling argument to the group. He never gets outraged with them.
Nor are the other Tribe adults ever described as insufferable morons-- instead we are repeatedly reminded that they are all just average folks. As if average folks wouldn't care that they were letting the torch of civilization burn out?!
Anyway, the author quickly writes away about 20 years, noting some landmarks along the way-- and so it is almost easy to miss the fact that 20 years is a long, long, long time. Plenty of time to educate children. Plenty of time to realize that not educating the children is a ridiculously stupid failure. Plenty of time to encounter problem after problem after problem, whose solutions could easily be found in books, which future generations really should know how to read.
So we have the impotent Ish, and the other Tribe adults sitting around, doing nothing but breeding ignorant offspring. Even when basic plumbing and water supplies fail, the adults are unmoved. Never mind that they could set up cisterns, or move to an area with a hand-pump well to get fresh water. Oh, and rather than fill toilet tanks manually from a bucket or something, or rig a clever plumbing solution, they choose to use outhouses instead. Yeah. Right.
Eventually Ish decides that way to educate the young is to teach them basic hunter-gatherer skills, so that when civilization's scraps are used up, they'll be able to survive on their wits. So, what does he do? He teaches them how to make bows and arrows, and how to start fires from scratch... and ... that's it. He teaches them literally nothing else. Nothing about farming, metallurgy, medicine, weather prediction (seriously, he doesn't even teach them how to use the barometer that he is hold), etc.
The Tribe breeds like bunnies, with every generation getting more ignorant. Ish notices that they are becoming superstitious, and losing skepticism and critical thinking skills. He attempts to fix the problem for a total of one minute, decides it's hopeless, and subsequently spends the rest of his life reinforcing the idea that his hammer is magical and that he is a god. He makes no attempt to explain scientific method-- arguably the one concept that could save the future from hundreds or thousands of years of ignorance.
The other major flaw in the novel was that there were clearly a lot of humans still alive, but the Tribe never seeks to join them. Early in the novel Ish found dozens of people without too much effort. Now, Ish's goal was to keep civilization alive. To that end, the obvious first step is to gather enough people together that they can start to specialize. In little groups, all you can really worry about is feeding yourself, but in larger groups, you can designate farmers to do the cultivating, and you can have other members of society do useful things like restore a power plant, learn medicine, TEACH CHILDREN HOW TO READ, and so on. This idea is never even mentioned by the author.
In Stewart's small view of the world, Ish is the "Last American"-- while as a reader I can enjoy the novel's ending only if I imagine that just a few hundred miles away a sizable group of humans have gathered and managed to keep their children educated. I choose to imagine that one day they will run into Ish's bow & arrow-wielding descendants, and mow them down with machine gun fire.
Me, myself, and I.
I've read a lot of science fiction, but few novels have impacted me as deeply as this one. Stewart's description of a post-apocalyptic society and, more importantly, the relationship between man and Earth, is nearly unparalleled in scope and depth. This one has me looking at roads, bridges, and other man-made scars upon the face of the planet in an entirely different way. Recommended for anyone who wants to journey into the impossibly possible.
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