Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Earth Abides

Sharon October 22nd, 2008

Ok, things have been shifting so fast that it almost seems as though it isn’t nearly as fun to read post-apocalyptic novels anymore ;-).  I’ve fallen down on the job pretty badly - but am finally catching up on Hunter-Gatherer month.  So let’s talk a bit about George Stewart’s classic novel _Earth Abides_.

This month’s works have the pleasure of fairly high quality writing.  Stewart’s narrative is, I think, quite gracefully done, and watching Ish navigate through the process of discovery, of grief and its stages, the slow discovery of what he wants and a future for himself, the recognition that he doesn’t fit with everyone who has survived - in a sense, I think Stewart may have narrated the process of adapting to disaster better than almost anyone else.   

The book was written in 1949, and it contains some gender and racial issues from those periods, some of the same things we’ll see in Alas Babylon, written less than a decade later.  But like Alas Babylon, the book tries very hard not to stretch past that viewpoint.  Ish often assumes he’s smarter than his wife since he thinks mostly about things like the future of civilization, and she tends to focus on practicalities, but the book shows over and over again that Em is actually more attuned to the present than Ish is.  It is she who points out that they need a sense of time more than the retention of high culture. 

“Again he thought that was like a woman, to put even such an all-important thing as the very date in terms of her unborn child. But yet, as so often, her instinct was right - a great pity if the historical record should be broken at some point!  Doubtless in the long run, archaeologists could restore the continuity by means of varves or dendrochronology, but it would save a lot of work if someone merely kept the tradition.” (123)

Ish cannot but think in terms of maintaining the past - but the future reshapes itself, and shows his fixation on the past as a failure, a limitation in the end. In fact, it turns out that once they find a way to track time, the way they track time reshapes the narrative - the “Quick Years” section of the book picks up the way that time changes for them.

The book chooses to imply that the fact that the children lose literacy is mostly an inevitability - Ish tries, at least casually, to teach the children, but it never works, and soon, literacy becomes less and less relevant to them.  This part of the narrative seems the most unlikely to me - there are so many ways in which literacy might have had direct relevance - in which parents might have discovered new things in books, and transmitted them.  The idea that all the parents except Ish casually dismiss the value of literacy in life that  does not seem overly laborious seems strange and unlikely to me.  The idea that Joey is the single potential carrier of literacy too, seems strange.

In this case, I think Stewart needed to strip literacy off his society, and chose to do so in a rather inadequate way.  But it is a fascinating narrative, this loss of literacy and of civilization.  Ish tries to hold on, and we cannot but sympathize with his attempts - but neither does the book allow us to see them as right or true in all respects.  In the end, Ezra says that what those who survived had was what was most needed,

Why each of them survived the Great Disaster - that I still do not know.  but I think I can see why each of them survived the shock that came afterwards, when so many went under.  George and Maurine and perhaps Molly too, they lived on and did not go crazy because they were stolid and had no imagination.  And Jean survived because she had her temper and fought back at life; and I, because I went out from myself and shared the lives of other people.  And you and Em…”

But here Ezra paused, so that Ish himself could speak.

“Yes,” said Ish, “you are right, I think….And I, I could live because I stood at one side and watched what was happening.  And as for Em….”

There he too paused, and Ezra spoke again.

“Well, as we were, so The Tribe will be.  It will not be brilliant, because we were not like that.  Perhaps the brilliant ones were not suited to survive….But as for Em, there is no need to explain, for we know that she was the strongest of us all.  Yes, we needed many things.  We needed George and his carpentry, and we needed your foresight, and perhaps we needed my knack of making one person work better with another, even thought I did little by myself.  But most of all, I think, we needed Em, for she gave us courage, and without courage there is only a slow dying, not life.”

This reminds me of Annie LaMott’s claim that one of the lessons of life is that the people who are here are the right people.  The narrative claim is not so much that any of the characters was perfect, but that their collective strength was sufficient, and it made a people that were shaped, if not controlled, by their origins.

Ultimately, given the parameters the author sets out, I find the book both compelling and fascinating.  I don’t necessarily think that the outcome - the stripping of civilization, loss of literacy and most (not all - we are told that patrilineal descent among other things, is retained because people are still too American to make the shift) of prior culture could happen nearly as quickly as Stewart suggests, but the accelleration is, in part, a narrative quirk in itself - its pathos is increased by having a unified narrator tell the whole story.

What did you think of the book?

22 Responses to “Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Earth Abides”

  1. MEAon 22 Oct 2008 at 8:01 am

    I have read the book in the last 3 or 4 years, but have read it several times over the past 30 decades.

    It stikes me that what is happening in the world refects what is happening to Ish (and I think the similarity between his name and that of Ishi (last of his tribe) is not coincidental).

    That is, Ish discovers that book-learning, which was the center of his life doesn’t protect us from life changing events — it doesn’t protect us on small scale (death of parents, say) and it doesn’t protect us on a large scale (death of almost everyone). That’s why, I think Ish refuses to look in the library for information (though near the end, he does go in there, leaf through some books, see his same on a pocket card of one, and feel that is he not the same person who took out the book — which I think is a very telling point) and why no one in the book has any interest in reading or preserving literacy.

    We get to see it falling away very quickly — more quickly than it might IRL — because it’s gone for Ish.

    It’s a case of the world creating by the author adapting to the character, rather than the other way round.

    This is not meant as a critism — it’s that this book is written as fable, or myth, rather than future history.

    My 11 year old daughter is reading that old libertarian manifesto, The girl who owned a City, and she keep harping on the fact that they don’t go to the library. (Now, you have to remember that she’s being brought up by a liberian, so she has her prejudice), but I still think it’s a good question.

    Perhaps for Ish it wasn’t such a pressing issue at first — there was food, water, just about all he needed for survival. He didn’t need to learn how to breed rabbits or whatever. By the time there was an adult 2nd generation, and such questions as what do we eat when there is no more tinned pineapple were becomming more pressing, the world no long had a “look it up” culture.

    What I find most interesting is the idea that the intellecutal (who is generally considered to be solitary creature in the invory tower) seems unable to substain the indenity of intellecutal without a like minded community.


  2. Russon 22 Oct 2008 at 8:11 am

    “The idea that all the parents except Ish casually dismiss the value of literacy in life that does not seem overly laborious seems strange and unlikely to me. The idea that Joey is the single potential carrier of literacy too, seems strange.”

    Hmm, I don’t know how things were back in 1949.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t seem strange to me at all when I think of America today, where thanks to both technology and aggressive stupidity and yahooism, we have a radically anti-intellectual, not just illiterate but anti-literate populace, even among allegedly “educated” people.

  3. deweyon 22 Oct 2008 at 9:11 am

    I think you do need a supportive community to have much intellectual activity. Most traditional cultures, especially small “primitive” groups, tolerate very little variation from the norm. Someone who displays superior intelligence by challenging culturally approved behavior patterns will be ostracized or worse. It is probably not a blessing to be the smartest person in a tribe or farming village (as is Joey in the book). When you look at periods in history where intellectual achievements were amassed rapidly, you find intellectual workers gathered in cities where they can interact with a variety of people - and get away from the limited world views in the countryside. Of course, small communities can be supportive of intellectual activity; European monasteries, to a point, were a good example. But it is worth considering the difference between the monastery and the surrounding villages, and what it would take to make a village equally tolerant of such “useless” activities as preserving a library.

  4. MEAon 22 Oct 2008 at 9:33 am

    Just remember that Em (name of Ish’s wife is mother in Hebrew). Considering the author’s profession, I think there is something there.

    ‘Primative’ people tend to have a strong oral traditon, not just for entertainment, but to tell them who they are in the world, how they got there, and and how the world works. That’s basically what a lot lot (if not all) books do, novels, non-fict, how to go to the potty books. That’s were there are books burings. Not becuase the burners don’t value the books, but becuase they fear them.

    And there have been a lot of very poor societies with a strong literary tradition, so I don’t think that struggling for survival dulls people’s wits. In fact, I think it tends to sharpen them, so I don’t think that appreciatio for what the written word can do will up and vanish.

    In fact, I think that a lot of non-bookish people in Western type modern society rely more on information than they think. It’s just not book information, and it may or may not be what I consider useful, though I expect it defines here world — just see what the top googled sites are.

  5. Rosaon 22 Oct 2008 at 9:56 am

    I’m still only halfway through (I just finished the synopses of the first 21 years last night).

    In the first section Ish struck me as almost Aspberger’s level of detachment. Maybe it was just an effect of the ’50s SF writing style, or maybe it was meant to show he was more in shock than he realized. It struck me as really odd, though, and it explained how he could live in The Tribe for 21 years - about half his life - and still not really feel engaged.

    You & MEA must be right about the author intending to talk about literacy right from the start, because there really was no need to have the kids be illiterate. I mean, wouldn’t Ish be reading for fun, if their life was really so leisurely? And if the adults are so stuck in the past, wouldn’t the kids be curious, especially if they are still surrounded by houses and cars and artifacts? The way the Tribe is evolving feels really forced.

    I do like the repeated theme of population collapse, even though I’m not sure I agree with it. People, dogs, rats, grasshoppers, cattle…

  6. Awlknottedupon 22 Oct 2008 at 10:28 am

    I think to understand the book and it’s premise, you need to look at it’s inspiration. The book takes place in and around the Berkeley, California hills. The Campus and its library figure in the story as a repository of knowledge needed by a people regressing back to Hunter Gatherers.

    The books Ish uses are the books about Ishi, the last member of Yahi tribe and the last person in America to live entirely outside of the American culture of the time. His tribe had been wiped out in the 1870s by cattlemen bent on taking the good grazing land of the northern Sacramento Valley. Ishi and the remaining members of the tribe hid out for the next 40 years as they were killed by settlers or died from introduced diseases. Ishi was discovered starving in an Oroville Corall in 1911. He lived the remainder of his live as an object of study at the University and died in 1916. Much of the knowledge we have of Stone Age activities comes from early interviews and motion pictures taken of Ishi. His methods of flint knapping are the basis of much of the modern revival of the activity.

    To gain an understanding of how we treated the natives everyone must read of Ishi’s life. At the time of the first contact it is estimated that over 10% of the total North American native population lived in California.

  7. Hummingbirdon 22 Oct 2008 at 10:42 am

    I read the book a long time ago, but still remember it clearly for the impression it made on me at the time. I never dreamed that I would be standing at the threshhold of a similar if different collapse.

    I’m afraid the premise of loss of literacy does not seem so unlikely to me. I was up until fairly recently a teacher in a high school program for pregnant and parenting teens, a group that one would expect to be interested in preparing to survive and care for their children. I was appalled that most of them had no interest in learning anything, no matter how practical I tried to make it. This was expressed clearly as “I don’t need to know that. My mother,(father, boyfriend, grandmother) will do it.”

    This is an attitude that may be more prevalent than readers of this blog-who tend to be more intellectually curious than most–would realize.

    I would expect more of a return to oral tradition transmitted by elders to younger people to teach important truths necessary for survival or the cohesion of the society.

  8. MEAon 22 Oct 2008 at 10:58 am

    Awlknottedup — other than the fact that both Ish and Ishi were “last men,” and that there is one point where Isherwood sees his whole name written out, and feels that he isn’t that person anymore (in contrast with the fact that Ishi means man and was used because Ishi couldn’t tell people his name for cultural reasons), I’m not sure how you think the book about Ishi informs Earth Abides. Could you share a bit more with us?

  9. texicalion 22 Oct 2008 at 11:54 am

    I enjoyed the book. Well, except for the part about the native americans having lost their will to live because they could no longer steal horses and scalp folks. The loss of book learning I found possible if disturbing. What I found unlikely was the loss of the skills of George the woodworker/carpenter. It seems like one of his children or someone elses would have apprenticed under him. In addition, I cannot imagine depending on canned food for twenty years. My grandmother never threw things out, and when she died I helped clean her pantry. She had some things in there that were that old and they were putrid and dangerous. I guess it is possible that all the seeds would be gone before people decided they needed to farm though. In which case I would think they would go to the library to look up what naturally occuring vegetation and berries were safe to eat. But then maybe not.

  10. Hummingbirdon 22 Oct 2008 at 2:29 pm

    I really liked this book when I read it. It got me thinking about a lot of things we take for granted–like food and police protection and modern medicine.

    I thought the author’s approach to these things was really creative–like finding the wild wheat fields (though the hybrids so dependent on chemical inputs would probably not survive now), and introducing the bow and arrow as a child’s toy used in contests.

    The tribalism represented by the leader’s hammer was interesting in that it was not an invented symbol like a crown, but just something that evolved. Made me think how unpredictable cultural evolution is. Who knows what a future society will look like. Although I’ll bet that books will not be a large part of the culture.

    I agree that it was more fun discussing the apocalypse before we got into it!

  11. Susan in NJon 22 Oct 2008 at 2:53 pm

    I haven’t had time to order this month’s books from the library yet. I agree about p.a. reading not being quite as much fun though. I was reading the 2d volume of Stirling’s series and finally returned it to the library as I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore.

  12. Texicalion 22 Oct 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Expanding on my thoughts a bit, I think that even in very primitive society’s (and I don’t see society becoming that primitive that quick, at least in thought processes) people do a variation on what their parents do. You have modeling of behavior. Even if the offspring of the other folks were not so bright, individuals would have begun hanging around the old folks in order to learn from them. One of Ish’s sons would have sensed the power and respect accorded to his father, and even if he did not believe in it initially, would begin trying to learn and position himself to be the next. That is at least in part why even in society’s that are not directly based on a hereditary transfer of power it appears to be based on heredity. The offspring would not let the houses that they had lived in simply collapse and burn down without care, because even though the quality and design often lacks something it beats sleeping outdoors for most people. This would be particularly true in the hills around san francisco where where you would wake up cold and damp almost every morning.

    I was annoyed with the fixation on Joey, it seemed to me that Ish was hoping that he would recreate some of the worst aspects of the current set up. But while book learning could disappear the practiced skills of the individuals would continue.

    And I don’t think agriculture would disappear that quick. I would assume some amount of protection of existing fruit trees, transplanting, and starting from seed. Maybe grafting would go away if nobody knew about it. But people would try and protect any fruit trees/bushes that survived the rats.

  13. Rosaon 22 Oct 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Yeah, Texicali, the “commonly known facts” from the ’50s about human behavior stand out in a really jarring way. The idea that native people just died out from poor spirits (especially since the Plains tribes he’s talking about had been decimated by disease just before/during the big wars w/Americans, so the example would have made a tidy parallel) is so wrong I just sort of jumped over it and tried not to notice.

    The race stuff threw me for a while. I noticed all the mentions of Em’s dark eyes, flashing what teeth, & whatnot, but the author was so coy about it I just now figured out for sure she’s part Black, not Jewish or native.

    I have read the Ishi books, and quite a bit of Native history & biography, but it sounds like y’all are talking about parts of the book I haven’t gotten to yet.

  14. villaboloon 22 Oct 2008 at 10:38 pm

    I believe that Ish must have been a projection of the author himself and his primitivist yearnings. I particularly liked the part where Ish, after years of ranting and raving about the dieing of civilization and how no one will ever be able to maintain it, decided to teach his children how to make their own bows and arrows. He accurately predicted the degradation of ammunition and spurned the idea of going to a sporting goods store to get modern made bows and arrows. That, and his cancellation of school was the moment that he accepted the death of the old and the begining of the new.
    His long life and his witnessing his own great grandchildren transform inexorably into a tribe was very touching and well written. To me it’s #1 in my collection of post apocalyptic sci-fi.

  15. Anion 23 Oct 2008 at 7:17 am

    I haven’t read this one yet-but the loss of literacy is a theme in “A Canticle for Leibowitz” as well- with only the monks preserving any form of literacy as it has been totally disposed of by a society which chose to eliminate the educated/professional class at one point in the downward process. Is that not similar however to what really happened in China or Cambodia last century with the ruling political regime wiping out the professional “elites”?

  16. MEAon 23 Oct 2008 at 8:21 am

    Just struck me — we were talking about finding one of these novels without a bad guy (esp. one taking over the world) and here we have it.

    Perhaps because there are so few people left, and so many resources.

  17. deweyon 23 Oct 2008 at 9:23 am

    Okay, what about the scene (boy, I hope I’m thinking of the right book here…) where they decide to kill a survivor who admitted to carrying venereal diseases? Was he a “bad guy”? Were they? Or were they just embracing traditional tribal values by seeing outsiders as disposable whenever that might benefit ingroup members?

  18. MEAon 23 Oct 2008 at 9:35 am

    He certainly wasn’t a nice guy — but he wasn’t planning on taking over the world, and getting rid of him took a scene or two. It wasn’t one of the main themes of the book.

    I see him as a bad guy, because I think if you know you have a comunicatible desease you don’t go around knowingly infecting people, and you don’t go around (in any case) planning on raping people (as Effie is presented, I’m not sure she can give meaningful consent).

    I don’t think it was that his death would benefit the group as much that is continued presence would harm the group and any others he came across.

    So I’ll give you a bad guy, but keep the taking over the world card.

  19. villaboloon 23 Oct 2008 at 11:41 am

    Dewey, I wholeheartedly agreed with Charlie’s execution. He was presented in the book as a consciousless psychopath who had even made the boast that Ish should be grateful that he had chosen Evie because he could have made more trouble by chosing one of the other married women.
    When you confront psychopaths like I have (and apparantly the author of Earth Abides may have) you realize that there is NO WAY that you can reason with them. This was well presented in the book when Ish after his humiliating encounter with Charlie was philosophising about how the reasoning intellectual (read nerd) always loses out to the Charlie types. That required some harsh medicine for the psychopathic Charlie irrespective of what culture, tribal or otherwise, you find yourself in.
    Also, the tribe discussed all forms of “civilized” punishment from imprisonment to excommunication and found them impractical.

  20. deweyon 23 Oct 2008 at 12:39 pm

    I’ll give you that; I’d forgotten the details. Arguably, he had it coming. Of course, to play devil’s advocate, “psychopath” is one of those labels that one can all too easily stick on troublesome people to convey the message “less than human.” Likewise, if the safety of a particular group requires that they be willing to kill, without mercy, anyone who is perceived as being a threat to them — well, how can their behavior be distinguished from the behavior of the inherently compassion-free sociopath?

  21. Rosaon 23 Oct 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Okay, I’m still not through the book all the way. I think if I weren’t reading for the discussion group, I would have quit. I really don’t like Ish, or the narrator. Ish’s disdain for all the people around him and his complete lack of action really grates on me. (Also, no comment on the group’s decision that Evie shouldn’t breed, despite nobody knowing what causes her disability?)

    So, I’m wondering as I read…what do you think the author’s thesis or intent was? A thought experiment on whether or not “soft, modern Man” could recreate the technology we all depend on? An argument that 7 people is not enough to sustain civilization? A plausible setup for the argument that humans would give up literacy very easily?

    It doesn’t feel like thought experiment SF to me, I think because it’s so lacking in details. But if there’s an argument, it’s reading like an argument that 6/7ths of the human race is irredeemably lazy and stupid, or possibly that people like hunter-gatherer life better than “civilization”.

    (Like, Tepper’s argument in TGtWC seemed to be “Humans can be bred toward temperament, like dogs.” And then she set up the details of the society in the book to support that argument, or to play out a “what if” scenario for rulers who believed her thesis. For most of the Sterling book he seemed to be saying “What would happen if the lights went out suddenly?” and then as it progressed it looked like the argument was “Myths look like daily life to the people in them.”)

  22. MEAon 23 Oct 2008 at 1:56 pm

    Or society could just say, you don’t conform to our norms — and we banish you or kill you. That’s what happens (though the people invovled are given different labels). One hopes, of course, that the society is such that the norms are just what we want.

    I think the whole word “breed” sums up the Evie situtation. The other characters saw her too child-like to have a sexual relationship that had any other aspect that breeding, and since they (rather naively, I think) thought that by promoting early marriage and making it “unthinkable” that you’d have sex outside of marriage they were not only protecting their society from what they would have considered “deficent” children but Evie from “being taken advantage of.”

    The question of sterilizing people (surgically, by removing them from the pool of potential mates, etc.) is a very charged one. No one wants to see it abused, and I don’t think anyone wants it to be anything except a private choice, by the individual or their guardians — which opens a whole can of worms.

    Now, I don’t know that even if Evie had shown signs of wanting a relationship or a child, Ish would have been able to reconize them as such, but on the whole (and I may be over protective here) I think that if Evie didn’t seem to want marriage, etc. it was better that she not be part of the pool of mates. I also think it was very unlikely that she wouldn’t want either a child or a husband, in so far as she understood what motherhood and marriage would entail. If she was able to make a meaningful choice — who knows? Author doesn’t give us enough information, IMO.

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