Avast! Thar be spoilers ahead!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Earth Abides

This was my first science-fiction novel/novella/short. I suppose this is not entirely true but it is the first one that ever affected me.

It is one of the early Apocalypse stories that became so popular during the cold war and the Bush W. administration. The story is told by Ish who observes the end of the world and the beginning of a new one. The catalyst is an unknown, air-born disease that kills off at least 99.99% of humanity sparing few with natural immunity. The world that ends is only the civilized world and the world that is rebuilt is only the world of mankind.

The title refers to the apathy of the planet upon which this human drama is played. Ish tends to watch the world instead of interacting and shaping. He notes that the few species to take notice of man's demise were domesticated in one sense or another: dogs, cats, rats, cows, etc. I suspect he is wrong about his evaluation of the survival of dogs, cats and horses. These animals are not tamed, even if they are domesticated. We like to pretend that they are and if we can appease dogs and cats and break horses, they will limply go along. But I suspect that a wild dog has a decent chance. And aren't all horses wild in each new generation?

The easy criticism of the book is Ish's own failure to respond. He gripes a great deal about inaction, such as failing to teach the children to read, but he never seems interested in acting. Why didn't he begin to read to his children in their infancy? It seems that in his absurd hopes for a chosen, golden child he readily forsook all of human knowledge.

Ish is, however, not what stays in my mind year after year. Instead, it is Stewart's imagine decay of civilization, for good and ill. The surviving "tribe" shares more work and has a communal ethic that eases the burdens of all. Racism is a luxury of a large society that the tiny tribe can no longer support. Yes, I am using "luxury" perversely. But sexism thrives, possibly out of necessity since the women are expected to bear any number of children to repopulate the world. Monogamy seems to establish itself in the second generation although there are two female survivors who share a husband. Superstition also survives.

Stewart also touches on a theory in studies of early human history. A population must be large enough before it can support and maintain progress. In Ish's doomed son lies hope that future generations will be able to access the treasury of knowledge in the libraries. When he dies, this hope is extinguished. Presumably, everyone else is too busy foraging and hunting. Though this is truly Ish's lame failure, it echoes a truth from across the ages. You cannot make advances in smelting it you are busy surviving.

No comments:

Post a Comment