The Last American

George R Stewart’s 1949 book Earth Abides examined by Andrew Darlington

Although published in 1949, George R Stewart’s sprawling epic Earth Abides was neither the first, nor the last fiction to delete homo sapiens from the world. For Stewart, it is a virus that wipes out the human race. But mass-extinction had been a popular theme for writers at least since Mary Shelley’s The Last Man in 1826, in which a viral-plague devastates civilisation, followed by the awful anguish of Matthew Phipps (MP) Shiel’s sole inheritor of a world depopulated by The Purple Cloud (1901). After Stewart’s novel the Cold War thermonuclear confrontation gave atomic catastrophe the added frisson of terrible political relevance, with world-ending cataclysm brought about by a regular arsenal of frightful doomsday weapons. In fact, Stewart alludes to global war as his character – Isherwood Williams, muses on the irony that ‘the trouble you’re expecting never happens’. People have ‘been trembling about destruction through war’, and ‘having bad dreams of cities blown to pieces’, but that ‘it’s always something that sneaks up the other way’. It’s an idea that’s been picked up and re-envisioned numerous times since in various inventive ways, with humanity variously drowned, grilled, frozen, irradiated, crystallised, burned and eaten by perambulating plants. Stephen King acknowledging the influence of Earth Abides on his The Stand (1978, revised 1990), with echoes up to Will Smith’s cinematic last man in New York in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legen’ (2007), or the ongoing Twenty-Eight Days Later movie series (2002 & 2007).

Unlike the way it would be had a more contemporary novelist written it, for Stewart there are no shambling zombies, no new-age barbarism, no ‘Mad Max’ savagery, no gratuitous gore or horror. This is not slam-bang world-wrecking alarmist CGi-SF spectacle. Stewart is primarily concerned with telling his tale. ‘Ish’ Williams is a student, researching his graduate thesis ‘The Ecology Of The Black Creek Area’ in a remote cabin. He’s bitten by a rattlesnake. Maybe the snake-venom has immunising properties? But it determines that Ish is absent, lost in a fever as  ‘the brief agony of mankind’ ends. So he emerges into eerie calm, a Rip Van Winkle figure, to discover America, and the world has changed beyond all recognition. He does find bodies, but they are few and not described in detail. Areas that smell of putrefaction he simply avoids. Most plague-victims, it is explained, would have been moved to hospitals or medical centres and then disposed of. There are other survivors. Few and in many cases deranged. Victims of what he calls ‘the secondary kill’. Those who fail to adapt. Suicides. Alcoholic deaths. Injuries untended. Lost in a ‘walking death’ incapable of adjusting to the loss of their life-pattern and social support structures.
One of the attractions of Stewart’s book is his little philosophical asides in the regular italicised sections. First, causes. He quotes an edition of ‘Chemical & Engineering News’ (22 December 1947) to the effect that, amplified by the ‘rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays’ a ‘killing type of virus’ would be ‘carried to the far corners of the Earth and cause the deaths of millions of people’. If that was true then, it is multiply true now. Mass migrations, commercial tourism and business infrastructure means that a virus can be carried clear around the world in six hours. Then he dispassionately details the effects of depopulation on the world in a detached, yet ruthlessly well thought-through manner. Even though we consider the theories of eco-structures and biodiversity to have been less-clearly understood back then he thoroughly describes the continuity of the post-human world with academic clarity. Sheep, he predicts, will die out, ‘thousands of years ago they accepted the protection of the shepherd and lost their agility and sense of independence. Now, when the shepherd has gone, they too must go’. Lice have become so parasitically adapted to humans they’ve lost the capacity to exist on any other host. He details the fate, not only of pets and domesticated animals ‘after twenty-thousand years’, but cultivated crops and nurtured plants surrendering to their more hardy wild counterparts.
There’s the implication that – as with the Gaia theory, nature has its checks and balances. That when a species becomes so over-populace that it threatens the natural order, nature introduces its own process of correction. As Stewart reminds us, there have been previous natural mass-extinctions, even during historical times. He quotes the example of the ‘Snow-Shoe Rabbit’ and the African buffalo, both of which multiplied to such an extent that they fell victim to sudden pestilence. Or ‘consider the case of Captain Maclear’s Rat’ he clinically advises. ‘Some zoologists have even suggested a biological law’ he adds, which maintains species at a constant viable level. Hence, in ‘Earth Abides’, the viral mutation that decimates the world, cleanly and exactly removes the human imbalance, and returns the world to its pristine pre-civilisation state. As if the excesses of the 20th century had never blighted the planet. There’s even a suggestion that this purging is a good thing. That the world is a better place without what he terms ‘the noise-producing animal’. A bleak appreciation that the world – and human hubris, stands in dire need of such a lesson. In doing so, he portrays a pastoral America reverted to its frontier state. To its pre-Columbian innocence.

George R Stewart
Ish returns to his parents’ home in San Lupo Drive, San Francisco. But, beyond leaving a note in case of their possible return, he wastes no time in mourning. Instead, as a research student he now views the new conditions as a chance to extend the scope of his thesis by studying the ‘whole progress of events’. As an observer, he sees this post-human era reduced to the simplicity of a laboratory experiment, a philosopher’s neat microcosm. It’s a convenient narrative device. But is his lack of grieving also a form of denial? He was, he tells himself, ‘always of a solitary nature’. Is the fact that he has ‘no feelings left’ the result of this ‘peculiar temperament’ – or is it his own method of dealing with the ‘shock and loneliness’? He now finds himself ‘unsatisfied and restless’. Is that a symptom of shock, or a psychological defence mechanism? He itemises the new priorities. He’s had his appendix removed. Such things are suddenly important. He carries his trusty ‘John Henry steel-driving’ single-jack miner’s hammer.
Later, he’s adopted by Princess, a beagle bitch. And, with this long-term canine companion, he drives across America. Ish follows the empty Route 66, to travelogue state-by-state across a devastated zone of looted liquor-stores, mass graves, increasingly feral wildlife, rust and weeds. He meets a group of African-American (negro) survivors in Arkansas who are not only ‘suffering the shock of the catastrophe’ but the social ‘taboos carried over from before it’. Stewart’s America had not survived long enough to enjoy the benefits of civil rights, and they feel guilt about plundering from white properties. He reaches New York – musing ‘falls Rome, falls the world’, his internal-dialogue lamenting that Fifth Avenue ‘makes a beautiful corpse’. Seeing the Statue of Liberty prompts ironic thoughts that ‘at least I have (liberty). More than anyone ever thought of’. Affectingly nostalgic for what is lost, he drives back west across an America lapsing into forest, observing it all in a melancholy elegiac way. Aware that his is possibly the last-ever trans-continental drive as fallen trees, landslides and wash-outs take their toll on highways. Borders are reduced to lines on maps, then not even that.
Placing things in perspective Stewart reminds us that on a planetary scale, even viewed from the Moon, little has changed. Human passing, on a cosmic scale, is no big deal. The world is bigger than whatever transient species inhabit it. As writer John Brunner notes, ‘‘Earth Abides’ contains magnificent images of the world getting along without man’. There’s also a biblical quality about some of the passages. The book-title itself is taken from ‘Ecclesiastes 1.4’ – ‘men go and come, but Earth abides’. Back then such allusions could expect to be immediately understood. There were countless SF tales in which the lone survivors of a spaceship wreck on a strangely idyllic planet turn out to be called Adam & Eve, and there are planetary evacuations of all terrestrial species in the face of planetary-doom in ‘Space Arks’. As a culture we’ve grown beyond such quaint superstitions, but it’s still possible to glimpse that mythic quality here. As John Brunner also acutely observes, Stewart’s prose ‘goes like a machinegun in a deliberately primitive English, reminiscent of the Authorised Version of the Bible, and it’s packed with formally archaic images – yet it’s an SF novel’. Meanwhile, back in San Lupo Drive, as nature convulses season-by-season around him, Ish is besieged by packs of wild dogs, inundations of ants and rats, temporary empires that succeed one another. Then the final failure of electrical power. A new Dark Age closing in.

Stewart combines eco-disaster with a retro-affection for the cosy small-scale rural communities that emerge from the wreckage. Neatly, without any contrivance, one becomes two. Ish notices chimney-smoke. Follows it. Finds Emily. They become Ish & Em. The fact she has some black genealogy is suddenly an irrelevance. Soon, two become three. There are inter-chapter ‘Quick Years’ as time accelerates. They become a tribe with the addition of Ezra & his wives, children and grandchildren. From near-misanthropic loner, by year twenty-two this unlikely architect of a new world has matured into the community leader with the hammer, the mystic symbol of his authority. He’s an essentially decent, well-intentioned, moral man. He worries for his community in ways that raise anthropological questions about the nature of humanity, the place of superstition and religion, tradition and innovation, the limits of culture, abstraction versus practical skills, language and literacy. How much of civilised behaviour is habit, a convention, a consensus? Without its restraining influence, what is left? What makes society change? He’d assumed that, after a chaotic interregnum, some semblance of the old life would resume, albeit in small-scale. Electrical power would be restored. Yet they’re still scavenging from the relics of the old world. With food-supplies easy to obtain, there’s no stimulus to change. Or – as with the Plains Indians, once their traditional way of life was rudely shattered, they’d lost the will to innovate. The new children are barely literate. Once reading-skills are lost, they’ll be incapable of consulting the libraries to find the technical information they need. None of the other adults seem to share his concerns. They shrug and live day-to-day, drifting with no thought for ten, twenty, or thirty years into an uncertain future. But Em’s common-sense responses balance out Ish’s sometimes elitist criticism of the others. Until the water-supply cracks up and fails. Until autos no longer run, and there are no horses and no-one experienced at taming them anyway – they are stranded city-dwellers after all. Life takes another step backwards
Two deaths stand out above the mass-extinction – Charlie, the drifter who bloods the new society and causes it to lose its innocence, and Joey, the smart son in whose intelligence Ish invests so many hopes for a better future. Decades after Ish’s cross-continent expedition, youngsters Bob & Dick attempt to replicate his journey to re-explore the new American frontier. The pioneers return with tales of a Pueblo community in Albuquerque, of an empty Chicago ghost-town, and LA given over to a hostile white-robed ‘People of God’ cult. But they also return with Charlie, who brings the leadership issue of the group to a head by focusing his sinister designs on mentally-challenged Evie, traumatised by her experiences during the Great Disaster, and cared for by the community. According to his address to the ‘Twenty-Third World SF Convention’ in London, 1965, John Brunner once persuaded CS Lewis to read Earth Abides, purely for the passage framing Ish’s moral dilemma about how to deal with Charlie (in ‘New Worlds No.162’, May 1966). As it is, they vote, Ish, dull carpenter George, and easy-going Ezra. Then they act together to execute Charlie. But something of his legacy exacts its toll. He also brought disease with him. Typhus takes five, including Joey. Ish must reconfigure his plans.
There’s been ‘a wiping-out of it all’. Will civilisation return? Can the end also offer the opportunity of ‘a new start’, of building a better world from the ruins? With Joey gone, with the loss of literacy, it’s by no means certain. People are no longer the crown of creation. They live as part of a pastoral world, not as its dominating power. Ish lowers his ambition. More modestly, he teaches his great-grandchildren the practical skills of archery. Once the scavenged ammunition fails they’ll still be able to hunt. As the collapse continues. Fire devours even San Lupo Drive. His wife and friends are gone. He’s the ‘Last American’, part oracle, sometime encumbrance. Again there’s the sense the viral-apocalypse was part of the Earth renewing itself. Certainly for Ish the course of his life has been radically altered, for the better. It’s difficult to imagine him reaching such assured dignity in the old life. The novel follows him through to his fading death as an oldster. Until he passes his hammer, the symbol of his authority, on to the new generation. The tribe are shaping their own lives into a future as yet undetermined. To which he is reconciled, and not displeased. For ‘men go and come, but Earth abides’.
The Tribe has become a hunter-gatherer reversion, adopting a Native American life-style. It’s easy to envisage over the coming years, as old houses become increasingly unsafe that they’ll move into make-shift shanty tepees of plundered materials such as corrugated panelling. Before moving to follow the migration of prey, or fresh water. But also that sooner or later there will be contact with other tribes. The African-American tribe for example. There’s also a likelihood that somewhere in the world beyond, in Europe or Africa, China or South America, a culture will have survived by doing what Ish failed to do, by passing on literacy and numeracy skills that will be rewarded by a more advanced culture. And that sooner or later the descendants of Ish’s tribe will be faced by a new Columbus, or new Conquistadors. But that remains for the unknown future. In the meantime, they abide.

I was eighteen when I first read Earth Abides, from a battered Ace Star paperback edition picked up cheap from the second-hand bookshop on Hull’s Prince’s Avenue. The effect was considerable. In fact it hit with the force of a large meteorite. Re-reading that same carefully-stored copy now the effect remains as powerful. George Rippey Stewart (31 May 1895 to 22 August 1980) was a distinguished historian as well as novelist, although only an accidental SF writer, with little connection to the genre. As Lee Harding, contributing a thoughtful ‘Guest Editorial’ to ‘New Worlds no.130’ (May 1963) points out, ‘Stewart was a writer first and a science fiction writer purely by chance’. Stewart earned his MA from Berkeley in 1920 for his study of Robert Luis Stevenson, only to return later to the same university as its English Professor. His factual book Names On The Land (1945), an academic account of place-naming in the United States, is enlivened by accounts of traveller’s tales formally circulated about the New World. He also wrote Ordeal By Hunge’ (revised 1960, adorned by maps) – the historical narrative of the doomed Donner-Reed Party pioneers who revert to cannibalism when stranded in frontier America. In the field of novels he wrote Fire – of people battling the forest-fire fury of nature, and ‘Storm’ about a Pacific cyclone. As with the Broadway song it inspired, ‘a wind called Maria’, the ‘protagonist’ of both novels is the title-event. But to John Brunner, ‘it’s no coincidence that having tackled themes of this nature Stewart walked fully equipped into the SF field and carried off the International Fantasy award’. For although Earth Abides’ is his only real work of SF it is ‘one of the finest of all disaster novels’ according to critic Malcolm J Edwards, and ‘generally acknowledged to be a classic of the genre’ (in The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction, edit Peter Nicholls). Lee Harding adds that Earth Abides ‘will remain a true classic for some years to come, when all the synthetic media by Pohl, del Rey, Anderson and others of that ilk, will be forgotten’. Maybe he’s wrong about the ‘others of that ilk’, but he’s absolutely correct on Stewart. He provides a model that modernised the theme of the ‘cleansing plague’ that deletes homo sapiens from the world, in ways readily assimilated by later writers.
At the brink of the 1950’s Stewart’s parallel-history protagonists know nothing of the Moon-landing, the collapse of Communism, the Beatles, Vietnam, Global Warming or iPods, but their human concerns are clear and achingly empathic. Earth Abides takes a single idea, and plots its consequences in a fast-moving involving and deeply-affecting prose-style, that has lost nothing of its epic power across the intervening years. Six decades after the novel’s publication, with the global population bursting through the seven-billion mark, we’re still here. Still hanging in. Although devastating, and with no disrespect to the pain and bereavement of victims, many lethal pandemics have failed to halt, or even slow, the population expansion. But historically, biohazards on a vast scale have happened. It took the Black Death five years to insidiously crawl across fourteenth-century Europe and reduce the population to a third of its previous numbers. It would now take a matter of hours to encircle the world. Just as in Contagion (2011), Gwyneth Paltrow is the unwitting carrier of a virus, spreading it back from Hong Kong to the USA, where even a supporting cast of Matt Damon, Jude Law and Kate Winslet struggle to contain its devastating effects. ‘Earth Abides’ was not intended as a warning. But be warned by it nevertheless. The ‘Great Disaster’ George R Stewart conjectured in 1949 has been deferred. While its symptoms in every way multiply. We are living on borrowed time….

1 comment:

  1. An interesting and impressive essay, Andrew, replete with your usual subtle humour.