Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Constant readers will know I have a particular liking for the (post) apocalyptic novel, and I've read quite a few of them over the years. However, none of them have made quite as much of an impression on me as this one. More of an experience than a simple story, Earth Abides is a real epic, and gives the reader a huge amount of food for thought.

The book opens on Isherwood Williams, or Ish as he calls himself, a young man who has been travelling out in the desert for some time and is suddenly bitten by a snake. He becomes ill, but recovers after a few days and decides it is time to return home to his parents' house. At the nearest village where he stops for supplies, Ish begins to realise something is wrong. The place is totally deserted, and the only people he encounters are dead. From a newspaper  he learns that a terrible plague has swept the country, killing almost everyone.

What makes this book so special is that it follows the whole of Ish's life, from his first shock when he realises the scale of the disaster, right through to his death as a very old man. During that time he travels over much of the country, meets several other survivors, finds some friends and a woman to love and starts a family - or rather, a tribe.

The author has really thought things through well, and has come up with some very plausible scenarios. What would happen to nature if man were no longer there to practise his own special kind of husbandry? Would there be a plague of rats, or ants? How long would our systems continue to work without our supervision? What of future generations who remember nothing of our civilisation, what sort of people would they become?

There are times when this book ventures out of novel territory and comes close to being a socialogical essay, but that really didn't bother me. I spent a good 50% of my time thinking rather than reading, and wondering what I would do in Ish's position. The problems he encounters change with each passing year, but I was never bored and stayed up well past my bedtime to finish it. This is definitely a book to remember and one I'm sure I will re-read in the future.

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