Earth Abides: My Review

Last week, I finished listening to a book recommended to me as one of the greatest sci-fi books ever: George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. I say listened, since this was the Audible version of the book, and not the reading version of the book. And yeah, I hate when people refer to listening to a book as “reading”. Confusing!

The story is told from the point of view of one character, named Isherwood Williams, or Ish, and takes place in the last 1940’s. The world has been hit by a virus that dwarfs anything that’s come before, killing 99.9999% of the population. I’m not giving anything away here, since is given up literally in the first page of the book. Only a very small handful of humans are left to roam the world.

First, the good. The book is half-way an intellectual study of how ecologically the Earth would be affected by such a massive and abrupt depopulation. How long do the works of Man remain? How are other creatures affected by our departure? What isn’t affected? If this was the only thrust of the book, while it might be a bit boring, it would also be enjoyable and interesting to some extent. The Earth itself becomes the main character in this case, while the human becomes the passive viewer.

Now the bad part of the book. The author also decided that he would take a stab at what would happen to humanity in these trials, and how civilization would perform and, perhaps, survive. While I won’t give away the ending, let’s just say that unless it’s a complete red herring — and I don’t think it is — the author isn’t very hopeful that such small numbers of humans left would be sufficient. Probably most annoying is the main character, Ish. I believe him to represent the very worst of the intellectual, technocratic thread that ran through Western Civilization during the first half of the 20th century, peaking during the early parts of the FDR administration. To these arrogant “smart” people, most of the population are illiterate, simple, dull creatures that need to be led by the hand to the “right” paths. Only very, very few people have the capacity to plan or to see beyond the end of their nose. So, therefore, the biggest problem with the almost-complete destruction of the human race is that there’s so few of the intellectuals left. Oh, there’s the cattle, but if you believe the main character, out of 20+ kids, only a single one had the capability to learn to read. “If only more people were like himself!”, the Ish moans.

Blather. To believe this nonsense, you’d have to believe that to read, you’d need to have an IQ of 140+, assuming 100 is the average. This is obviously not true, and the only way someone could possibly believe that is if they live in a self-contained bubble of their family and academia where they believe themselves to only be in the presence of the gifted class. Disgusting. It sounds plausible if you only give it a few seconds thought: the world’s problems are caused by the sub-intelligent, careless, and evil of the world, and if we only gave the reins over to the good, enlightened experts, we’d be saved! Unfortunately for this viewpoint, most of the world’s problems are caused by the experts.

So, no, I can’t really recommend this book. By all means, though, go to the Amazon page linked to above and read the reviews. I’m certainly in the minority with this opinion.

3 responses to “Earth Abides: My Review

  1. Careful … Earth Abides was influenced by Jack London’s Scarlet Plague. Both went on to influence The Stand and Summer of the Apocalypse.

  2. Granted that it’s a very influential book; as I said, it’s considered one of the greatest. I just don’t see it, though. The book is schizophrenic in its point and goes out of its way to trumpet the idea that most people are drooling idiots in need of someone smart to tell them what to do.

    At least with The Stand, 1/2 of humanity works diligently for the future, and gives the reader hope that if a catastrophe happened we wouldn’t just revert back to the Stone Age. There’s some very likable characters, and all of them, regardless of the side they’re on, are interesting.

  3. When I read Earth Abides, I was pretty young. The image of an empty Earth really got to me. I didn’t see the point of view you mentioned here. I’ll have to go back and reread as an adult.

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