Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

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The Earth abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. Next on my reading list this summer was Earth Abides (Amazon), a classic 1949 sci-fi apocalypse from George R. Stewart. The premise is not unfamiliar; a plague rapidly eliminates 99%+ of the world’s population, leaving behind as straggled survivors the happy/unhappy few who happen to have natural immunity. The novel spans an incredible 45 years, imagining in its first third the breakdown of society in the face of the Great Disaster, in its second one surviving group scavenging in the ruins of civilization after 22 years, and in the final third the same group 22 years after that. In this respect it’s far more ambitious than most entries in its genre, which usually content themselves with depicting the total breakdown of society before allowing a token glimpse of some return to normalcy (sometimes a technological marvel, or the peaceful discovery of another group of survivors, but usually the birth or coming into reason of a child).

The narrative throughline of all this is Ish—short for Isherwood Williams, but really short for Ishmael. Here is yet another book that points my erstwhile dissertation on apocalypse (expected publication date: 2030) back out of the twentieth century and towards Melville’s Moby Dick, if not further. In the introduction Connie Willis calls this book one of the saddest she’s ever read, and to whatever extent that’s true it’s because of Ish, and the long extinguishment of his dreams of rekindling technological society.

In the end, though, I disagree with this reading. Whatever else we think about the novel’s close, in the end we must imagine Isherwood happy.

It’s a good book. I’m reminded a bit of what Kurt Vonnegut had to say about Kilgore Trout in Slaughterhouse-Five—”Kilgore Trout had some incredible ideas, if only he could write!” Stewart can write, but not always well, and he has an unfortunate tendency towards internal epic monologue that grows tired about a quarter of the way through the book. But the ideas are quite nice, and it’s as good as any novel I’ve read at imaginging the return to nature after the breakdown of Western civilization. And there’s a passage near the end of the book that struck me very powerfully, though I think one probably has to have read through the whole thing to get the full effect:

Again, in that day each little tribe will live by itself and to itself and go in its own way, and their diffferences will soon be more than they were even in the first days of Man, according to what accidents of survival and of place….

Here they live always in awe of the Other World, and scarcely dare make water without a prayer. They have skill with boats among tidal channels. To eat, they catch fish and dig clams, and gather seeds of wild grasses….

Here they are darker-skinned and talk another language, and worship a dark-skinned mother and child. They keep horses and turkeys, and grow corn in the flat by the river. They catch rabbits in snares, but have no bows….

Here they are still darker. They speak English, but say no r’s, and their speech is thick. They keep pigs and chickens, and raise corn. Also they raise cotton, but make no use of it, except to offer a little to their god, knowing it from old to be a thing of power. Their god has the form of an alligator, and they call him Olsaytn….

Here they shoot with the bow, skillfully, and their hunting dogs are trained to give tongue. They love assembly and debate. Their womenfolk walk proudly. The symbol of their god is a hammer, but they pay him no great reverence….

Many others there are, too, each differing. In the distant years after these first years, the tribes will grow more numerous and come together, and cross-fertilize in body and in mind. Then, doubtless, blindly and of no one’s planning, will come new civilizations and new wars.

Written by gerrycanavan

May 15, 2007 at 2:59 pm

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