on May 17, 2003
When I write "one of the most memorable books I've read," that's saying something, because I've kept up a pace of reading at least four books a week since before entering Kindergarten and am now 67. I borrowed EARTH ABIDES from the library a year after it came out, in 1950, when I was a 14-year-old high school sophomore, reading everything and anything labeled "science fiction." I didn't own the book until fairly recently, but it stayed vividly in my memory. I could call up characters like fussy Maureen, stolid George, loyal Em and the tragic genius child, Joey. I remembered the fascinating journey across America, the vague frustration I felt (even so young) over Ish's passive character and the generally negative slide of the tribe from scavenging off civilization into what appeared almost to be an Upper Paleolithic lifestyle at the novel's end--not even qualifying as barbarism.
But it's Stewart's refusal to tread the usual Golden Age sci-fi path and make Ish a superscience hero that makes the novel very special. Ish may be a scientist, he's academically bright, but like many people he's low in energy, street-smarts, and foresight. By and large his motley clan possesses even lower survival skills. They aren't much different from the Valley Girls in another good story in the end-of-the-world genre, the movie NIGHT OF THE COMET. Both are based on an understanding that if the human race's average IQ is 100, half the people who are likely to survive a major disaster aren't going to be awfully competent. Stewart certainly knew that, and it provided both the uncanny realism and the rather depressing pessimism of this story. It's fascinating to note that the other reviewers have noted both aspects of EARTH ABIDES.
on February 26, 1999
George R. Stewart weaves at once a beautiful and hauntingly believable tale with this novel, one that I've never been able to forget...or wanted to. Once considered dated, with the lessening of global nuclear tensions, the scenario Mr. Stewart envisions for a possible worldwide catastrophe, one brought about not by bombs but disease, has once again come to the forefront and become the most plausible ingredient in mankind's demise. More even than the fact that this is a truly enjoyable read is the deeper message Earth Abides shares with the reader as it reaches down and touches our very hearts, defining what it means to be human in an inhuman environment. The symbolism involved in Isherwood Williams' desire to keep a hammer with him for the future as a tie to the past is obviously an unconscious comment on his personal hope of rebuilding a fallen civilization. A hope that goes unfulfilled in his life time and maybe many lifetimes to follow. The insight into the human psyche that Mr. Stewart demonstates as he carries Isherwood from his youth at the beginning of the book to old age and finally death at the end and Isherwood's subtle change of attitude during that process, rings exceedingly true and speaks volumes about Mr. Stewart's keen and perhaps unique ability to put into words what it really means, or at least should mean, to be human. I've rarely read a book more than once because I just don't have the time, but I've read Earth Abides several times since I was a teen and I know I'll read it several more times before I too reach that stage in my life that Isherwood assures us won't be the calamity our youth oriented culture would have us to believe.
on July 18, 2001
One thing that disturbs people about Earth Abides is its incredible humbling realism about the human condition. People who read it come away profoundly unnerved by the idea that civilization is not something guaranteed to come into existence if we lose it and that it requires an enormous convergence of many different kinds of stimulus to create the energies needed within a race of men to bring it into being. Even the most gifted races of people on the Earth can barely hold it together in the best of times, George Stewart shows us how easily it can all fall apart and remain in a primeval condition for untold generations.
The protagonist Isherwood suffers from the same disease that afflicts even the best of men - he lacks direction, loses initiative, becomes too preoccupied with the daily stresses of living and watches his life trickle away in the post apocalyptic environment without ever seeming to summon the right kinds of ambitions to carry out his grand dreams of rebuilding the old world.
Stewart was quite prophetic considering when this book was written because many modern anthropologists have since confirmed that many previous civilizations have died out precisely because of this "critical threshold" of the division of labor and sheer numbers of vanished races being too low to sustain a breeding population and achieve the critical mass that leads to a progress oriented civilization. Stewart was very perceptive too be able to articulate this phenomenon and even narrate its exact trajectory following the loss of so many people who were vital components in the world that Isherwood regrets the demise of.
The most disturbing aspect for me was that I see much of the exact decay of western civilization going on right now all around us and we have not even have a catastrophic plague yet. The same loss of purpose, of drive, of a sense of our own individual worth as a nation and a desire to maintain our sovereignty is slowly giving way to the degenerative notion of a world socialist government of faceless consumers who lack any culture beyond the food court and cineplex.
The terrifying thing about the book "Earth Abides" is that it is the story of our world and the modern era ... even before we suffer the inevitable collapse of our civilization in the physical sense. The reality is that we see it all crumbling around our eyes into the multicultural carnival of formlessness and we often find ourselves as helpless and feckless as Ish himself in doing anything about it.
Highest rating, possibly on the top 100 list of best fiction I've ever read. I consider Stewart to be the author of a modern classic in publishing this book. It is so much more than simply speculative fiction, it contains eternal truths.
on February 28, 2005
Due to a multitude of rude comments regarding this review I will edit to please. Here goes... NON-SPOILER ALERT
I can't expound upon this book as some of the reviewers have. Nor can I recall in exact detail everything in the book.
But I can add value in this way.... I read this book 30 years ago, and I still think about it. I can remember the xxxxxx, the xxxxx that xxxx the main character, the waves of xxxxx xxxxxx after the event... the xxxx, the forced xxxx, the eventual shut down of the xxxxx xxxxx as the xxxxxxxxx started to xxxxx. The shift from xxxxxxxxxx( for years) to xxxxxxx for themselves.
The last breaths of the xxxxxxx and the xxxxxx for the xxxxxxx, the xxxx which every year the xxxxxxx took up to the xxxxx and xxxxx the time since the xxxxx.
30 Years.... and I still think about it. How many books, movies, songs... etc... do you expect to think about 30 years down the road. You probably wouldn't even remember the title let alone a rough outline.
Will I read it again? Certainly! I ran into a young lady reading this on the subway a few years back, and we had a wonderful conversation... it's that kind of a book.
SPOILAGE AVERTED --- Skol
on July 31, 2000
I read this book in '75. Since then I've been pretty much obsessed by it and other eoc novels (End Of Civilisation). I've looked for a book that had similar 'feel' to it. Unfortuntaly 'The Stand', 'Alas, Babylon' or 'Swan Song' don't capture the same magic. The closest I've come to simulate the read experience that was 'Earth Abides' is Alfred Coppel's 'Dark December' or Brian Hodge' 'Dark Advent'.
Out of all 300+ eoc novels I've picked up over the last 25 years, 'Earth Abides' STILL ranks as the best. It's probably my all time favorite novel...I think I'm going to go read it again...
on September 9, 2003
As of this date there are 158 reviews of George R. Stewart's Earth Abides here in Amazon.com. I'm not sure that writing a 159th will really add any value or if anyone will even make all the way to #159 to see it. But I feel very strongly about this book and to the intrepid reader who gets this far, I hope it helps you to decide to give the book a try.
I was 12 years old in 1968 when my Mother gave me this book to read. She was (and still is) a voracious reader. But she has never liked or appreciated science fiction. Then again, she never considered this book to be science fiction. I read the book in one day that summer and have read it at least a half dozen times in the 35 years since then. And I would agree. Although often voted as one of the best science fiction books of all time, I don't really think of it as science fiction. Stewart was not a science fiction writer. Rather he was more of an ecological writer looking at how the planet behaves in relation to specific circumstances. Two of his other novels, Fire and Storm are good examples of this.
One area I differ strongly from my Mom is, I do have a good appreciation for science fiction as well as other apocolyptic fiction. Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Philip Jose Farmer and Issac Asimov have thrilled and entertained me for years. But Earth Abides was what got me started and remains my favorite piece of fiction.
Earth Abides is a simple "what if" story. What if virtually every person on earth died and only a handful were left? Given the book's publication date in 1949, it was groundbreaking. No one had really written a novel on this topic before this. Virtually all the other books in this genre owe a debt of gratitude to Stewart. Books such as The Stand by Stephen King, Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, Malevil by Robert Merle, Lucifer's Hammer by Niven & Pournelle and Swan Song by Robert McCammon included.
Stewart must have had his influences, but not from a book or author of this kind. Therefore the story does not focus on war or technology or industry (or science fiction). Instead it is a tale of how the people might behave under the circumstances, the struggles they deal with, the decisions they make and the decisions they fail to make. It is also a tale of how the earth changes and the previous efforts of mankind are so easily erased.
Some reviewers here have criticized the main character Ish as being too passive. But this is a part of the novel that rings very true for me. How agressive would one be after living through a time when virtually everyone else dies? Wouldn't most people struggle to survive, never mind thrive?
I won't give away the plot for anyone who has gotten this far. Plus if you've made it all the way to this review, you've seen the plot described almost 158 times. In the end the book is both depressing and uplifting. It is depressing in that most of man's advancements appear to be lost by the end of the book. But it is uplifting to realize that the earth heals itself and in the end man will start fresh.
The book is both a product and a victim of it's time period, the late 1940's. Some of it will feel a little dated, after all it's over 50 years old and think what has happened in those 50 years. But remarkably, it still comes across as fresh. And with very little update could be brought up to present day and still be a powerful piece of fiction.
All in all this is a great read for most people. For those looking for a hard core science fiction look at the end of the world, go watch the Terminator movies.
on September 2, 2002
As I look at the many Amazon customer comments, I see a real split between very favorable and unfavorable reviews. This seems to be because some readers are looking for conventional science fiction/fantasy or adventure. Much as I love those genres, this isn't it, so if that's what you're looking for, save yourself the trouble and don't read Earth Abides. If you do read it, don't expect it to be something it's not.
Earth Abides is a book for people with a strong streak of curiosity, who cannot resist thinking and speculating about the human condition. If this is you, few books will satisfy you as well as this one. It first captivated me when I was 14 - yes, there are teens who would be very excited by this book - and I am now on my fourth reading. There is no other novel to which I have returned so regularly. If you are possessed of this curious, speculative streak, then you will appreciate the protagonist, Ish, who himself is driven to understand the horrible event that has overcome the world and to raise and shape a new world. You will also appreciate the realism of the action and characters, and the underlying drama of the situation and tragic heroism of Ish, and you will not for a minute miss the contrived drama and heroism that make for conventional action fiction.
on July 28, 2000
I recently re-read this book after twenty five years. The story drives with a unique force as the naturally detached observer-protagonist Isherwood witnesses the Earth and Mankind's remnants slowly re-establish a new balance. This reacquaintence also served as a reflection on myself.
As a teenager, I was drawn to Ish's character, much like my own at the time: quiet, reflective, socially uncomfortable. I took great delight in identifying that the book took place in my own neighborhood: The rock where they carved the years is a perfect description of Indian Rock in Berkeley, where I climbed countless times as a kid. For years after, wherever I went I liked to see how unkept gardens took over their yards, how abandoned houses returned slowly to Nature's way, how unused roads returned to the soil at a relentless if geologic pace.
As a man in my 40s I find the tale retains its fascinating hold. I still like to see how Man's works change in their own way when left alone, just as any other object in nature. Much of Stewart's description of that change rings true and is well visualized. But most striking to me was that the nature of the characters had changed in my mind. No longer were they just people like myself, making the best out of this extraordinary circumstance. The second time around, the characters were very unsatisfying. Ish is the only one with any ambition at all, and he is unable to make anything of it. This is due entirely to his personal failings: the social stiffness he never outgrew, his lack of focus, his increasingly insular view of his place in the surrounding world. I was particularly offended by a scene of "crime" and punishment. Yet these are not failings of the author nor of the book. Stewart was simply taking the opportunity to show that, barring the survival of some remarkably talented and organized people, civilization is not by any means guaranteed to carry on. Though "The Stand" is more entertaining, "Earth Abides" remains much more satisfying.
on June 16, 1999
First published in 1949, this novel won the 1951 International Fantasy Award in Fiction (the first one awarded) even though this is not a true fantasy novel. The International Fantasy Awards were originated by four British science fiction and fantasy fans (Leslie Flood, John Beynon Harris, G. Ken Chapman, and Frank A. Cooper) for the 1951 British science fiction convention. The awards lasted between 1951 and 1957. George R. Stewart (1895-1980) was a Professor of English at the University of California in Berkeley. This well-read novel is about life after a plague has killed all but a few people on Earth. Isherwood Williams, a graduate student in geography, returns from a trip to the mountains to find everyone dead. He travels throughout the land and finds a female survivor. They settle down in the Bay Area around San Francisco and a small community grows around them. As time goes by, Isherwood tries to teach the children reading and the knowledge of the past. As the decades go by, he discovers that he is the only one who recalls the greatness of the past. Humans have become a band of hunter-gatherers. History has come full circle. "...men go and come, but earth abides." Carl Sandburg considered it one of the best novels of its time. It is regarded by many as a masterpiece and was a precursor for many later disaster novels (note that one of the voters of the International Fantasy Award was J. B. Harris, whose pseudonym was John Wyndham and author of another classic disaster novel, "The Day of the Triffids." One of the earlier reviewers suggested that Wyndham was a better disaster writer. But, "Triffids" came out in 1951, and Wyndham still chose "Earth Abides."). The name "Isherwood" is a direct reference to Ishi, the last surviving member of a California Indian tribe who was brought to the University by Kroeber of the Anthropology Department (many science fiction enthusiasts are very familiar with Kroeber's daughter, Ursula K. Le Guin). Ishi is still quite famous in the study of native American cultures. This book has had such an impact in the development of the science fiction genre that it is now required reading for all serious students of science fiction and speculative literature.
on January 13, 2005
Very rarely do I finish a book and immediately recommend it to other people. Mostly books help pass the time and end up portraying the same plot; another female FBI agent trying to catch a serial killer who ends up stalking her. However, after reading Earth Abides I called up my brother and told him to pick it up. The book, while written some 50 years ago is still topical. The book takes you on a journey of how a person survives after a disaster that wipes out almost the whole population. It then takes you deeper, you find yourself emotionally involved with the character. And you realize that George Stewart has moved from an tale of physical survival into a tale of emotional conflict. The transition is smooth and the two easily complement each other. If you enjoy reading about a world where civilization has been wiped clean and a new world must start over. I highly recommend this book. The writing was engaging and intelligent without confusing you. The storyline was deep and involving. Overall, the main character becomes immediately identifiable. The book ends; but the world created by George Stewart lives on in our imagination. And, I believe that is a definition of a good book.