Earth Abides (1949) is an early post-apocalyptic SF novel notable for its rigorous attention to ecological and sociological verisimilitude. The book opens when reclusive Geography student Ish – having been bitten by a rattlesnake while conducting fieldwork in the wilderness – returns to his native San Francisco to discover that a plague of unknown origin has killed 99.999…% of the world’s population. Here he unintentionally becomes the de facto leader of a small group of ragtag survivors, and together they try to make a life for themselves in the ruins of the world while simultaneously attempting (and failing) to maintain such tenets of civilization as democracy, education, justice etc.
Ironically the novel feels somewhat refreshing by today’s standards, purely because it pre-dates the establishment of many of the genre’s more tiresome clichés; there are no mutants roaming the wastes, no militaristic tribes or would-be warlords, no irradiated “zones” and no visual fetish for gasmasks, makeshift weaponry and all other such over-familiar genre paraphernalia. The most recognisable intact trope is an obsession with the idea of salvage, but rather than scrap metal, guns and trains, Ish is concerned with the salvage of learning: his primary site of plunder being the city library. Perhaps the novelty of this approach to salvage speaks to the current state of the genre: a kind of retrospective proof of how post-apocalyptic fiction has dumbed down in recent years, from mostly scientific thought experiment, to mostly hyper-violent glamourisation of neo-con survivalism. (Not that the so-called salvagepunk variety doesn’t occasionally throw up interesting stuff). It’s notable that modern apocalyptic settings are often used as a narrative device to legitimise character behaviour that, under normal circumstances, is hard to justify: particularly violence.
The apocalypse of Earth Abides undoubtedly fits Brian Aldiss’ much-quoted notion of the “cosy catastrophe”. Almost everybody has died, but the world, in fact, doesn’t seem at all that bad. Characters are liberated from the post-industrial emasculation of the nine-to-five office routine, and, unchained from the shackles of societal responsibility, are free to live where they want, to take what they want, and to behave how they want. The big draw of so much apocalypse stuff seems to be that, in a post-apoc world, nobody would need to get a job. Surely it’s a damning indictment of society that apocalypse has become a kind of fantastical or idealist escapism? There’s no radiation or zombies here; indeed, the only concern is the procurement of clean water (and in this regard the catastrophe is uniquely First-World: scarce access to drinking water is a situation so alien to our experience that apparently we need to invent some extraordinary apocalypse in order to appreciate such a thing, when, as we know, a lack of clean water is a real-world lived reality for millions if not billions of people).
There’s definitely something of a male power fantasy about not just Earth Abides, but (post)-apocalypses in general, too: the way in which they welcome an atavistic return to a time of more “empowered” or “natural” manliness: hunting, butchering and providing; it’s a vision of building the world, rather than just living in it. In Earth Abides, this brings an uncomfortable utopian tone to the book, with the frequent suggestion that humanity has fucked-up so badly that hitting the apocalyptic reset button is probably the best thing for the species. The plague, then, is a happy accident that brings with it a sort of fortuitous social cleansing: a chance for liberal scientist Ish to restart society as he sees fit. Ish protests that his apparent enjoyment of the empty world is merely a scientific interest, but such claims are thrown into question by the novel’s commonplace assertions that he is living a life “of greater freedom than anyone could possibly have lived in the Old Times”. The bare world is painted as a kind of post-deluvian paradise, washed free of all the bad stuff, enabling Ish to (attempt to) create the kind of society he’s always wanted. Apocalypse is societal palimpsest. A catastrophe for the rest of world, the plague is the making of Ish: transforming him from a nobody into a great leader of men. (He claims to be a reluctant chief, but I don’t believe this for a second. He loves it). It’s apocalypse as a personal utopia, then; though little space is given over to the billions who’ve died to make this possible. (And as a note: 99% of the global population had been killed; surely there should be a lot more bodies lying around than, like, the two or whatever that Ish encounters?)
In fact, I’m not sure what’s more bleak: the assessment of humanity as a species so far down the road to failure that a 99% killing-off is the only chance we have of regaining the true path… or the novel’s problematic and inconsistent treatment of race and gender. The former is dour in an obviously nihilistic way, and can perhaps be accounted for today as post-war anxiety(/scaremongering), but the latter issue raises some difficult questions for modern readers concerning the novel’s moral identity. The text will frequently take snipes at women (such as a description of mothers as “bovine”), which seem part tongue-in-cheek, and part downright offensive. But things get even worse when Ish encounters a group of black people basically scraping around in the dirt because, apparently, without civilization to guide them, they’ve reverted to their more natural behaviour. Or something.
At this point it would seem easy to categorise the book as appallingly racist, but such an exegesis is complicated by later narrative developments, such as when Ish marries a black woman – Emma – whom the text portrays as a complex, sympathetic and strong-willed character, dubbed the “mother of nations”. It’s difficult to overstate quite how progressive the wilful presentation of an interracial marriage was in 1940s America. Biblical analogues are easily drawn against many of the book’s ideas, and as the starting point for a second replenishing of the Earth, if you will, what could be more liberal-idealist than an interracial union? But comparing this with the aforementioned bigoted presentation of black people (and the potential damp-squib-making comment that Ish only marries Emma because, in a post-apocalyptic landscape, one can’t afford to be picky…) makes for a pretty inconsistent treatment of race. Indeed, trying to reconcile the book’s progressive handling of Ish’s marriage with its occasional racist asides is a tricky business, and perhaps the novel’s major difficulty.
Much of the book is given over to meticulously thought-out descriptions of the survivors’ day-to-day lives; how they make new tools, build shelters, try to farm etc. There’s very little dialogue, and stylistically the prose (at least for the first two thirds) smacks more of ecology textbook than novel; but I guess this is in-keeping with its realist agenda and Ish’s identity as a man of science. The writing isn’t especially florid, except for occasional (though unnecessary) interjections from Ish’s diaries. The descriptions of plant life slowly encroaching on urban areas, of rusting industry and crumbling metropolises have become standard fare for the genre, but any sense of familiarity is mitigated by the knowledge that Earth Abides’ imagery was the progenitor of this now commonplace SF aesthetic.
And so the book would seem to be a straightforward story of survival coupled with a scientific thought experiment, and in some ways it has that classic SF feel of Verne or Wells about it. The novel’s final third, however, is a far stranger thing, elevating the book from something kinda interesting if forgettable, to something that’s actually very good indeed. A temporal jump shifts the narrative into the future to show us Ish’s old age; the style changes from one of cold objective description to a highly sympathetic third person, and the imagery becomes more and more hallucinatory, dreamlike and uncharacteristically vague. Ish spends his old age in a kind of fog (the cause of which is not disclosed, though dementia is most likely), with only fleeting moments of clarity. Years pass in a matter of pages as Ish, mostly living in his own head and unaware of the world, ruminates on the possible futures of humanity. When the fog occasionally lifts, we’re given glimpses of Ish’s band of survivors and the generations coming up behind them: the people who were born after the plague and who have no experience of the world before. Without Ish to lead them, the tribe becomes increasingly primitive, both in action and language. In one of Ish’s final moments of clarity, he finds himself on the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge with some men dressed in animal skins and carrying spears, and realises that all trace of the pre-apocalyptic civilization has now vanished.
It’s a profoundly moving passage, made all the more affecting by the sudden and jarring way it contrasts stylistically with the novel’s first two acts. It also adds a subtextual depth to the novel, too; with the playing-out of the apocalypse functioning as a metaphor for the slow degeneration of old age, both bodily and, in Ish’s case, mentally. You can almost track the progress of the apocalypse in time with the aging of our protagonist. Just as Ish’s consciousness and body are decaying around him, so too is the world until, as epitomised in the spear-carrying, superstitious primitives of the final pages, things have changed so much that Ish no longer has a place. This parallel between the decay of society and the decay of Ish as a person further strengthens the aforementioned argument that Earth Abides is a deeply personal apocalypse; the world of the novel behaves in sympathetic tandem with Ish, from the limitless opportunities it offers him in his youth, through its creeping deterioration, to something finally, utterly broken and changed.
It’s almost tempting to argue, therefore, that the apocalypse of Earth Abides isn’t a literal narrative event, but a metaphor for Ish’s slow decay; an externalisation of how Ish psychologically conceives of the world around him, rather than a factual representation of the world as it is. I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much (and it would, of course, be more convincing if the novel were written in the first person), but the fact that such an interpretation even suggests itself speaks to the highly personal and human nature of Earth Abides. Ultimately the book isn’t without its flaws (flat prose, rambling explanations of day-to-day-life, racism, sexism), but its concern for psychological realism initiated an engagement with human emotion that wasn’t really seen again in “realistic” post-apocalypse fiction until Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in 2006, and this, if nothing else, is what makes the book worth reading.