This page is a working area for my notes on Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.
Of all the works I list on my intertext page this work and the description of the character Ish have resonated in my mind for most of my life. I couldn’t contain all my notes on the subject to just an entry on the top level page so I’ve created this page to expand my thoughts. Who knows how often I’ll update this but stop by once in a while and see.
Themes (added to the list as I identify them):
On the title:
Just after the title page is this quotation: “Men go and come, but earth abides — Ecclesiastes 1, 4
This is really a paraphrase and a non-standard translation of the verse. It is the basis of the title of the book and through out his writing Stewart does his best to show that over a long period of time the earth remains despite the changes that occur in humanity. The verse in the New Revised Standard addition of the Bible reads: “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” The King James version comes closer to Stewart’s quotation with this, ” One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” Stewart takes liberties with the Bible but his point through out the book remains as his underlying theme, “Despite what humans (man) do the earth will remain.” Stewart uses a duel lens when looking at time – he sees not only in geologic time but also in human time scales and constantly intertwines the two. Stewart will start looking at a human event and then before end of the paragraph he’ll have transported you years or even centuries into the future.
I have a reprinted edition of the book published in 2006. The original book was published in 1949 and over the years has won an award or two. It has become a classic in the Science Fiction field and naturally many people have read it and been influenced by it. Naturally a book publisher could just reprint the book they had to mention all this and include a special introduction. This addition’s introduction was written by Connie Willis, a science fiction writer of some note. Most of her work is from the 1980s on and I’ve not read much of her work. By the 1990’s I’d mostly given up on reading modern SciFi in the 2000s I’ve mostly stayed away from those stories. For the purpose of these notes I am not going to comment on Willis’ introduction.
When the Book Was Written:
When reading the book the critic needs to keep in mind what the world was like for Stewart. His technology and knowledge of science was much different than ours is some 60 years later. Also social structures were different. When we view his book we must put some filters in place to understand what he was trying to say. Had this book been written today the author would have to deal with topics like toxic waste, unattended nuclear power plants, and a host of things that weren’t in existence in 1949.
Stewart breaks his book into three major sections, “World without end,” “The year 22,” and “The Last American.” It is a clean, beginning, middle and end structure but Stewart does try to keep the time scales unified and you find some sections going to great detail about the events of a single hour, while another part will narrate the events of full year in a paragraph. He keeps his time line fluid as he views time as just one of the variables he is observing. Observation is another theme in the book – the narrator is an observer and so is the main character Ish. In fact much of the underlying tension of Ish’s character is Ish’s tendency to observe rather than act.
Quotes from the book:
In this section I’ll note quotes from the book that interested me (note that page numbers are from the 2006 edition, chapter 1 starts on page 3).
P. 1 “If the killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation … In Chemical and Engineering News” This sets the stage for the kind of disaster about to befall the characters in the book. At the time the book was being written virus were just beginning to be understood. Also by this time the power of atomic bombs was just becoming generally understood and at least at the military and academic levels the notions of biological weapons were being tested and talked about. I haven’t found out yet if this is a real article Stewart is quoting or where it was crafted for the book. However this is one place where current knowledge might paint a different picture. It’s true that a new virus could be very deadly but what little epidemiology I know suggests that a mutated virus would not kill all the hosts it infects. A virus requires a host organism to reproduce and from a survival standpoint it would be unwise to kill off all your hosts in the first round. Generally the pattern would be more likely to kill say 60 percent of the people and then mutate again to a less aggressive form. Natural mutation is unlikely to create a “super strain.” This accounts for subsequent books and stories (for example, “The Andromeda Strain”) inventing ‘engineered’ or alien viruses as the bases if mass destruction and general mayhem.
P. 3 (chapter 1) “…and the government of the United States of America is herewith suspended” Stewart follows a good writers trick to get you hooked on the book. In the sentence he dissolves government and by the end of the paragraph it’s clear he’s also kill off most of humanity. You naturally need to read the next chapter to figure out what’s next.