Most of the time when Stephen King cites a book as an influence or recommends it, I’ll give it a whirl. Over the years, I’d say I’ve enjoyed at least 90% of what King recommends — either on the pages of Entertainment Weekly or in the forwards or afterwards of his various novels.
One of those recommended reads is Earth Abides which King cites as an influence for one of my favorite works by him, The Stand. And so it was that I scoured a couple of used book stores to find a copy of George R. Stewart’s influential, post-apocalyptic novel. And then, it sat on the to be read pile for a while, collecting dust. For a while I just wasn’t in the mood for the end of the world as we know it and rebuilding humanity again. But finally, I got into a place where I wanted to read about the world ending and so I finally got around to reading the story of Isherwood Williams (Ish), who survives a mutated strain of the measles thanks to a rattlesnake bite. Isolated in a cabin in the woods (but not the one used in the Joss Whedon movie, mind you), Ish rides out the poison and the disease to find he’s one of the last surviving human beings on the planet. He also finds a hammer, which will become pretty important in the days to come — not only to break into various establishments to gain supplies, but also as a symbol to the community that Ish helps establish.
At first, Ish takes the news that he’s one of the last men on Earth fairly well. In fact, I’d have to say that Ish takes it in stride. He takes a cross country tour of America to see the full impact of the disease and if anyone has survived, before returning to the Bay Area. Here he meets a woman named Em, they settle down, get married and start building a new community. Thanks to much of the technology of the time being powered by water falls, things like electricity and running water are around for a lot longer than you’d expect.
The story is told over the course of several years, with long sections focusing on the current situation and then short chapters that fill in what happened in between. It helps keep the novel moving and doesn’t dwell too much on the ins and outs of daily life in the post-disease world. And that may be a good thing, though at times the sections that detail the between years end up feeling more like a genealogy than anything else. As the years go along, Ish realizes that his little group has to being to establish things like farming if humanity is going to survive. Ish is also driven to make sure humanity’s knowledge and culture aren’t forgotten, setting up a school for the younger generation and attempting to preserve the library so the great works of literature and much of humanity’s history and knowledge won’t be forgotten.
I suppose if I’d read this when it were first published or before I’d read a lot of other end of the world, doomsday novels, it might have had a greater impact on me. As it stands, Earth Abides is a good novel, but it didn’t really stand out from the rest of the pack. Stewart creates some vivid, interesting and memorable moments over the course of the novel, but isolated moments don’t make up for a lack of overall drive to the plot or any significantly interest characters beyond the central character of Ish. For surviving the end of the world, the characters here have it fairly easy for much of the novel since running water is still around and there is very little, if any, external threat from predators — either human or animal.
And while Earth Abides was never adapted as a feature film, it was adapted for radio. Escape adapted the novel over two episodes in the 1950’s and it’s certainly worth a listen. The first part is fairly faithful to the source material, but part two diverges quite a bit. It’s still worth a listen, though. You can find both halves of the adaptation HERE.. And if you’re worried that by downloading it, the FBI might show up at your door, don’t. A majority of OTR shows are public domain these days, so you’re free to download, listen and share with family and friends.