But what if there were some massive event, like a nuclear holocaust or a more lethal descendant of the Black Death that were to strike us? What if there were only a few stragglers left as witnesses to a massive near-extinction event that wiped out billions over the course of days or weeks? What if the entire weight of preserving civilization were to fall upon our shoulders? How would we decide what to keep and what to discard in case the remnant populations manage to forge a civilization of their own out of the wreckage of our "modern" societies?
Ever since Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) was published, there have been frequent attempts to tell a convincing story of future "lastness." Several of the books on the Gollancz SF Masterworks list focus on this theme, either obliquely or directly, often through the use of rapid environmental change (such as those described in J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World or Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang) or the chronicling of "deep time" (H.G. Wells' The Time Machine or Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men). But with the possible exception of Stapledon's novel, none of these stories ever attempts to look at how societies might be reconstructed after the "deluge" of disease/nuclear warfare/environmental catastrophe, except for American writer George R. Stewart's 1949 novel, Earth Abides. Even after sixty years, this novel is still one of the best post-apocalyptic novels ever written because of its depth of themes and the ease for which readers have in understanding its main character, Isherwood (Ish) Williams.
Set in 1940s California, the action in Earth Abides unfolds over nearly fifty years. When the story begins, Ish is out alone in a wilderness expedition when a deadly superplague strikes almost simultaneously across the planet, wiping out well over 90% of the world's population in a matter of a couple of weeks. As Ish returns to his San Francisco home, he learns of the situation after it has alreay passed:
He stared hard against the reflection of the light in the window, and suddenly he saw that there were headlines as large as for Pearl Harbor. He read:
What crisis? With sudden determination he strode back to the car, and picked up the hammer. A moment later he stood with the heavy head poised in front of the door.
Then suddenly all the restraints of habit stopped him. Civilization moved in, and held his arm, almost physically. You couldn't do this! You didn't break into a store this way - you, a law-abiding citizen! He glanced up and down the street, as if a policeman or a posse might be bearing down on him.
But the empty street brought him back again, and panic overbore the restraints. "Hell," he thought, "I can pay for the door if I have to!"
With a wild feeling of burning his bridges, of leaving civilization behind, he swung the heavy hammer-head with all his force against the door-lock. The wood splintered, the door flew open, he stepped in. (p. 12)
And in this short scene, we begin to witness the gradual evolution of human life away from its pre-plague years. The old proprieties on how to interact fade in light of civilization having collapsed. With this comes the question of whether or not commonly-held moral codes ought to be abandoned or not; Stewart repeatedly comes back to this issue throughout the novel. After Ish then embarks upon a cross-country tour to see what other survivors he can discover, encountering only an African American farming family in the South and a couple in New York, he returns to San Francisco, where he meets Emma (Em):
"Oh, it's not that! It's not that!" she cried out, still trembling. "I lied. Not what I said, what I didn't say! But it's all the same. You're just a nice boy. You looked at my hands, and said they were nice. You never even noticed the blue in the half-moons."
He felt the shock, and he knew that she felt the shock in him. Now everything came together in his mind - brunette complexion, dark liquid eyes, full lips, white teeth, rich voice, accepting temperament.
Then she spoke again, scarcely in more than a whisper, "It didn't matter at first, of course. No man cares then about that. But my mother's people never had much luck in the world. Maybe when things are starting out again, it shouldn't be with them. But mostly, I guess, I think it wasn't right with you."
Then suddenly he heard nothing more, for the whole vast farce of everything broke in upon him, and he laughed, and all he could do was to laugh and laugh more, and then he found that she, too, had relaxed and was laughing with him and holding him all the closer.
"Oh, darling," he said, "everything is smashed and New York lies empty from Spuyten Duyvil to the Battery, and there's no government in Washington. The senators and the judges and the governors are all dead and rotten, and the Jew-baiters and the Negro-baiters along with them. We're just two poor people, picking at the leavings of civilization for our lives, not knowing whether it's to be the ants or the rats or something else will get us. Maybe a thousand years from now people can afford the luxury of wondering and worrying about that kind of thing again. But I doubt it. And now there are just the two of us here, or maybe three, now."
He kissed her while she still was weeping quietly. And he knew that for once he had seen more clearly and more deeply, and been stronger than she. (pp. 110-111)
Fairly controversial for pre-Civil Rights, segregation-era America. This scene where Ish and Em decide to start a family, one that would not be judged on skin color, represents perhaps one of the strongest "breaks" of the many that occur within this novel. Although this passage may not have the same sort of effect for a 21st century reader that it had for readers in the 1940s and 1950s (after all, it was not until 1967 that anti-miscegenation marriage laws were ruled to be unconstitutional in the United States), Stewart makes an extremely powerful argument about then-present (and still present?) social absurdities through the casual addressing and dismissal of them in this one short but poignant scene.
There are other conflicts that occur as more survivors find each other and found a small settlement of less than twenty people in San Francisco. As Ish, Em, and new friends George, Ezra, and others, male and female alike, gather together, questions of how to reproduce are introduced (bigamy is not exactly an issue with which most Americans would be comfortable), as well as debates on systems of government, holidays to be celebrated, and how years would be marked. Sometimes, such as the first couple of years of the new colony, much time would be devoted to what was transpiring, while at two other points, decades would pass in a few pages. As the settlement continues to expand, the salvaged technology (such as cars, gasoline, and rifles) wear out. The children have no real concept of pre-plague society, viewing it increasingly as myth rather than a past reality. The elders of the community see their relationships with each other and with their offspring change in ways that are similar to how pre-industrial societies used to view their ancestors.
This shift to a more "pre-modern" mindset is done adroitly here. Stewart does not spend more than a couple of pages on any of the moral, political, social, or technological crises that face the community. However, he manages to infuse each of these issues with a profundity that adds layers of meaning to these events. As Earth Abides builds to its moving conclusion (one that references the source of the novel's title), the reader is challenged to consider the import of the issues that are raised throughout the book.
Is Earth Abides a "Masterwork"? Considering how well Stewart addresses social concerns of the time, some of which still persist today, it could be argued that this book is perhaps one of the two or three best post-apocalyptic novels, not just because of the vivid nature of the devastation, but rather because of how plausible the post-disaster societies are shown in their attempts to salvage meaning from the event and how fragile social and natural ecosystems can be. Stewart's prose is direct and devoid of florid phrases, yet still manages to be evocative when necessary. The problems that plague Ish and his new community make this novel a great, absorbing read. People's tastes may come and go, but Earth Abides certainly will be a relevant, moving work long after we return to dust.