As reports of the COVID-19 virus continue and the potential scope of this incipient pandemic has become apparent, I’ve had a flashback to 1950. I was a freshman at Evanston (IL) Township High School, and I noticed a book on the library’s “new releases” shelf: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Its cover depicted an abandoned, decaying city. Fascinating! I checked it out and read it, nearly nonstop. I’ve read it three or four times since then, with almost the same gusto. A few years ago, my Google search confirmed why I was so impressed with Earth Abides. It received high praise from Carl Sandberg and Robert Frost! It has never been out of print. But why am I so in love with this masterpiece? And how is it relevant to the current Coronavirus situation and Voices of a New Republic of the Heart? I’ll attempt to explain.
The book is normally shelved in the science fiction section. But there are no space ships, no intergalactic battles, and no time travel. The “sciences” in the fiction are ecology, epidemiology, sociology, and doubtless more. The author brilliantly portrays ordinary people chosen by their fates to repopulate humanity, blessed – and cursed – with an inventory of goods and traditions that they alone could re-stock. That they do, with an all-too-human mixture of courage, ingenuity and folly.
Here’s a brief summary:
The protagonist, graduate student Isherwood Williams, suffers a near-lethal snake bite while doing field work in the Sierra Mountains. After weeks of delirium in his cabin, he recovers enough to head home to Berkeley, CA. He notices no road traffic and soon realizes that a mega-pandemic has brought down civilization worldwide, leaving few people remaining. Thus begins his lifelong odyssey as the leader of a small band of survivors. They have their pick of civilization’s “leftovers” – until, one by one, they fail. Electricity, canned food, running water, the basics.
Nature, having no humans to contend with, adjusts with wild boom and bust cycles. Domestic animals and plant life fall prey to wolves and weeds. Rats gnaw open the cans on grocery store shelves and feast like there’s no tomorrow until their tomorrow comes, which rewards scavengers with their own population explosion. Trees pierce roads and plazas. Skyscrapers are covered with ivy and moss.
New lives are born into the clan, and they learn to navigate, not by street signs, but by waterways, bridges, and church spires. Ish aspires to preserve civilization’s learning and culture for the coming generations. But reality seeps in – first gradually, then abruptly as his bright and curious son Joey dies in a rebound epidemic. Ish turns to the surviving children and shows them how to start a fire without matches and to fashion a bow and arrow – he realizes how much more useful these skills will be to future generations than trigonometry and architecture. Later, he observes that they have tipped the arrows with hammered coins – malleable nickels being the preferred denomination.
With no government and no laws, the survivors set down rules to fit their new circumstances – first for themselves, then for the children. Difficult situations force them to improvise: an unwanted stranger “immigrates” and threatens disease and social disorder. Reluctantly, capital punishment is carried out upon him. And thus a new “cradle of civilization” evolves, not as ours evolved, but from its own unique “stepchild” plateau. Each clan will worship gods inspired by memories of their original elders, the pandemic survivors who possessed incomprehensible powers. Taboos and superstitions will take root, often out of encounters with the toxic and treacherous remnants of times past. Eventually, future generations will make sense of it all.
Priceless take-aways and what-ifs are embedded in this fascinating speculative tale. I’m certain you would find many if you take a dive into Earth Abides. Here are some of mine:
- Our frenetic, imperfect evolution has left us vulnerable to upsets that could well be as overwhelming.
- The zeitgeist of 1949 did not have words to express it. America was on a roll and full of itself. But I think George R. Stewart had peered into the future way before it began unfolding. Perhaps that is why this opus has been so enduring.
- The trappings of civilization are so contrived and unessential, yet it takes a major disruptor like a pandemic to make us realize it.
- We hope and trust that the current pandemic will run its course soon, and we will emerge at the other end stronger and wiser. But who knows what that virus and its mutations are capable of? And who knows what the next “black swan” event has in store for us?
- The author spared us the details of humanity’s die-off. To have done so would have turned off countless readers and added nothing to the thematic message.
- Ish’s clan led interesting, and surprisingly pleasant lives, even as the comforts of civilization receded.
- The children behave just as children always have: they accept the world they are born into and seamlessly claim a role for themselves in it.
- Typical of Stewart’s ahead-of-its-time statements, he decides that Ish will meet and mate with an African-American woman. (For those of you who weren’t around in 1949, this arrangement was a cultural third rail.)
- Just as Ish and his fellow survivors were handed a blank slate to rebuild society, today’s pandemic can serve as an opportunity to re-evaluate the dysfunctional attitudes and practices of our institutions which exacerbated the inept and sluggish response to the crisis.
- Most curious to me was that the community flourishes, they seem to follow a very predictive pattern of development and evolution so very reminiscent of that of the previous civilization. (See the Integral Tools series).