Having moved from the paradise of San Diego to the howling winds of the high plains in Colorado, reviewer Mel lives the apocalypse every day
A Tired Zombie on Every Street Corner
The culture of the apocalypse surrounds us, bombards our senses. This condition holds true even as society substitutes its belief in a higher power with "self-worship" - proclaimed by the millions of selfie icons uploaded daily from cell phones onto social media accounts. Although our former faith in divine intervention has been swapped for intensified devotion to the celestial being in the mirror, modern storytelling has become fixated upon eschatological, end of the world as we know it themes.
The Walking Dead and its spin-offs continue to grace, or pollute the airwaves - depending on one's attitude toward the franchise, and will continue to do so as long as the living deliver ratings. The public's laughable obsession over zombie infestation has naturally led to comedic spins on the subject, such as Woody Harrelson's Zombieland, Sci-Fi Network's irreverent Z-Nation, and the proper British laugh at the genre, Shaun of the Dead. Still, the majority of the masses continue to take the dead seriously, as we see with uncountable interpretations that include Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, and I Am Legend, just a handful among barely distinguishable clones, all relying on the worn-out premise of hungry dead lunching on the living for box office sustenance.
But zombies are not always on the menu - Children of Men and Road Warrior demonstrate that the end of the world doesn't have to include flesh-craving ghouls tottering slowly on wobbly legs, yet always somehow catching up. Even authors we think of as high-browed, literary types have cashed in on the craze, as in The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, a Pulitzer Prize winner. That particular tale explores the idea of how living men become crazed cannibals as the world slowly fizzles out, promoting the premise that not only the undead acquire a taste for human flesh.
In this over-saturated apocalypse entertainment market, The Walking Dead might be the most popular, most cited work, but as far as zombie song and dance numbers go, the twelve-year-running AMC series was late to the after-party. I was watching George Romero's Dawn of the Dead at the midnight movies back in 1982, and as early as 1968 that film's predecessor, Night of The Living Dead, was horrifying film-goers in black and white blood. People have been fascinated with deadly doomsday scenarios since the book of Revelations exploded onto the scene in 95 AD, and here in the 21st century, as overpopulation expands humanity closer to the edge of anarchy and chaos, the zombie brand's popularity has taken on a new bite. The genre has sunken its tainted teeth into human culture, and won't be loosening that jaw-lock anytime soon.
A novel published way back in 1949 seems to have spawned the gore-fest, without intending to. Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart, is a tale that deals with the mass die-off of the human race after a pandemic, but has nothing to do with undead fiends feasting on the living. In fact, the novel has very little to do with traditional science fiction at all, lacking the typical elements one encounters in the category - invasions from space aliens, hyper-advanced technology, etc. Even though the work is hailed as an inspirational, ground-breaking work in the genre, if I had to call it science fiction, I would say it draws its inspiration from the branches of anthropology and biology. Earth Abides delivers a painfully believable prediction of how human civilization would revert back to its fundamental, tribal nature after a catastrophe, but it does so without the murder and mayhem that wearily accompanies most of the post-apocalyptic children it sired.
Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **
|Book||Pages||Word Count||Date Started||Date Finished||Lunchtimes Consumed|
The City We Became
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-time
The Bone Clocks
*Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word-count website, I rely on that total if it looks legit.
**Thirty-three other titles, with a total estimated word count of 7,192,034 and 1,138 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.
Lunchtime Lit Rules
Thank goodness Lunchtime Lit never gets a craving for human flesh, it sticks to traditional midday meal fare, such as sandwiches, potato chips, yogurt. Those are not bloodstains you see on Mel's soiled copy of Moby Dick, it's probably just a smear from his Nacho Cheese Doritos. Still, one can never tell when he might turn, so for your own safety and that of others in these pandemic days, give him some antisocial distance to read the books he reviews here, which he does only on his authorized half-hour postal lunch break, never taking them home for late-night gnawings.
Where Does Earth Abides "Stand" in The Post-Apocalyptic Pantheon?
In my Lunchtime Lit reviews, I frequently ramble unnecessarily about how I come across the novels I pack into my postal gunna, to enjoy on my half-hour authorized meal break. Apart from books, this repository of my daily postal necessities also contains things like pliers, ice-spikes, ibuprofen, spare underwear, and oh yeah, a bottle of the ever essential WD-40, which almost never fails to loosen a stubborn mailbox lock, and even goes good on tacos. My gunna is so imposing a toolbox that a cute little mail-lady asked me the other day if I was going camping, after which some cranky old postal wag asked me if I was going fishing. It's amazing how one can interpret what is essentially the same sarcasm in two different ways, depending on who is delivering it. If aimed at us by a young and pretty Asian girl, the playfulness tingles us down to our toes, but if coming from some wrinkled, cantankerous mail mule, the snide comment makes us bark at them to go away and mind their own business.
Here is how Earth Abides wound up in my gunna. Creepy, intrusive little Google tries to guess my tastes, and occasionally nails it. I don't exactly remember what I was reading on my phone when I decided to try Stewart's crown jewel, but I think it was a Wikipedia article on The Stand, by Stephen King.
The Stand is one of the few post-apocalyptic dynamos that doesn't deal with zombies, instead delving into how unseen supernatural forces of good and evil battle for control of the remaining souls after, (you guessed it!,) a man-made epidemic wipes out most of humanity. Despite the stark differences between George Stewart's cogent portrayal of handfuls of humans surviving a great die-off, and King's fantastical depiction of people as pawns in the hands of God and the Devil, the horror author still cites Earth Abides as the inspiration behind his own doomsday epic. Being a big fan of The Stand since my wayward adolescence, these props were enough to get me to buy a used copy of its progenitor. I needed to examine for myself the seeds that bloomed into the sprawling, 800 page epic that stands among King's best.
Compared to the towering, messy, but oh so tasty Dagwood sandwich of The Stand, Earth Abides was but a thin diet wafer. In spite of being freeze-dried into a compact mass for easy storage and transport - less sandwich and more energy bar, every word within was both delicious and nutritious. Befitting the work of the university scholar that he was, Stewart makes profound observations about the human condition on almost every page, using them to dress up a plot that is mostly an oversimplified vehicle for his anthropological observations. This is quite the contrast to what we are accustomed to in the apocalyptic genre, where complex politics make survivors take sides that attempt to murder one another - Randall Flagg vs Mother Abigail, Rick Grimes vs. Negan and his intimidated, terrified minions. Very little of the sort occurs in Earth Abides. There are no marauders lingering over the horizon, waiting to swoop in and rape, murder and plunder the good guys. If killing has to be engaged in, it is done on a small scale, after great deliberation, and only because the survival of the tribe depends upon it.
In the beginning of Earth Abides we find university student Isherwood Williams (Ish), out in the wild conducting research for some dissertation that is soon to be rendered superfluous. There, he is bitten by a rattlesnake, and after days lingering in a feverish daze, perhaps induced by the snake venom, perhaps by the deadly disease that infests the atmosphere, maybe a combination of both, he emerges from his cabin in the woods to discover the bulk of humanity has been destroyed by a plague. Ish's complete ignorance of the disaster smells peculiarly of Walking Dead's sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes waking up isolated in the hospital after being shot, to find that the dead are now gobbling up the remnants of humanity. Is it possible that the net of Earth Abide's influence was cast way beyond The Stand, and may have reeled in Robert Kirkwood and Tony Moore, the creators of the graphic novel that spawned the blockbuster series?
Ish lives through snakebite and disease, whatever poison nature has thrown his way. Being of a nerdy, scientific bent, he begins a coast to coast survey of the United States, during which journey he encounters a handful of survivors, though nobody he deems worthy to hitch his own fate to. Returning home to Northern California disappointed, he encounters a woman named Emma, and around them coalesce a small collection of remnants, who set out to repopulate the human race. Meanwhile, Ish remains obsessed with the idea of rebuilding civilization, an idea that is difficult to sell because of the plenitude of food and resources left behind after the purging of the world's billions. With so much abundance, who wants to strain themselves to reassemble the technological conveniences of the past? At the end of the novel, with the smoke of mankind's last, burning ruins filling his dying lungs, Ish makes peace with the idea that, despite his efforts to preserve the specie's body of knowledge, and direct his companion's efforts to a purpose that transcends mere survival, man has descended into his natural state once more.
Parallels in The Parable
Stewart's parable is backed by real world parallels that tell how real people have organized their effort in times of plenty. In the fictional scenario of Earth Abides, the survivors enjoy the practically inexhaustible resources of packed store shelves, unlimited guns and ammunition, and free roaming livestock that can be picked off at leisure. But this isn't just science fiction whisking us off into fantasyland, while we're worrying about squeezing the grocery bill beneath the mortgage payment.
The history of the Native American Great Plains tribes demonstrate how a society can become content with a very limited technology, when there are no survival reasons to stimulate specialization. With the introduction of the horse by the Spaniards, tribes such as the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Comanches survived quite well chasing the limitless Buffalo that covered the prairies. Blessed with a high-protein gold mine, they had no need to implement the methods of their sedentary, agricultural neighbors - including permanent settlements, and better organized governments that might force individuals to work for the good of a community, as planting and harvesting require. In a time and place where there was no threat of hunger on the bison-studded horizon, the people of the plains had plenty of free time, and could do what they wanted with it. If they so desired, a band's warriors could follow a popular chief on a horse-raiding party, or else just sit around whatever spot of Earth was home that week, smoking, telling stories, or playing with their children.
Being the smartest among his band, Earth Abides' Isherwood Williams gains unofficial recognition as its leader, a status symbolized by the possession of his mighty rock hammer. Despite having this fearsome ancient implement in his power, he exercises no real authority. Even in the very small number of emergencies that beset the tiny cadre, he bows to his comrades' consensus, making no headway against their lethargic attitude toward work that has no immediate payoff. When the generators finally shut down and the pipes and aqueducts rust and crumble, he cannot even mobilize the people to maintain the power and water. There is no urgency in advancing beyond their established practices - if folks get hungry, they can simply shoot one of the thousands of free-range cattle, or if bored, corral a bovine for the daredevil sport of "bull baiting," the group's most popular form of recreation. Fed up with beef? - canned goods line the shelves of the dozens of grocery stores the cataclysm has emptied of shoppers. When reduced, or perhaps elevated to a state of nature, the survivors of Earth Abides and the experience of the Plains Indians show us that Homo sapiens becomes just another animal - expending just enough energy to proliferate the species.
Stewart's anthropological thesis, dressed up in pretty prose, also analyzes the meaning and role of God and religion. What is God, save a means to solidify the nebulous whims of a hostile universe? As the twin deities of science and technology retreat, the people revert back to less sophisticated superstitions that man embraced at his inception. After the survivors of the plague are supplemented with new children, Ish's hammer comes to symbolize the mythical lost race of The Americans, the new Atlanteans. The hammer becomes an icon treated with sacred reverence, associated with the ruins of the departed demigods, who must have possessed extraordinary powers to create the works around them that remain awe-inspiring, even as they crumble. In the same way, though the tribe rejects the importance of the 3Rs Isherwood tries in vain to impose upon them, he and his mathematical magic remain revered as great marvels of the vanished age.
Will The Haughty Be Humbled?
The hypothetical post-apocalyptic future expounded by George Stewart in Earth Abides is not the product of an armchair philosopher's wild imagination, his observations about the nature of man grew from the all-embracing body of knowledge he accumulated over the course of his career. Popular science-fiction novelist aside, he was also a professor of English, a historian, and a recognized scholar in a wide spectrum of disciplines. Stewart held a PHD in English literature from Columbia University. He was an expert in toponymy, the study of the origin of place names. He wrote a highly-lauded account of Pickett's charge at the battle of Gettysburg. This multitude of multi-hued academic works explore the interaction of man and his environment, themes that spilled over into novels that, though classified beneath the umbrella of science-fictional futurism, remain thoroughly relevant in the present.
Mostly in his role as a novelist, George Stewart has influenced and inspired all manner of art - from literature, to drama, to music. Not only did bestselling Stephen King derive inspiration in Stewart's crowning glory, but composer Philip Aeberg wrote a piece named for Earth Abides. It was even Jimi Hendrix's favorite read - he cited it as the source for his song Third Stone from The Sun.
George Stewart has moved many with beautiful and thought-provoking prose, there is a great deal of poetry wrapped up in his philosophy. While Earth Abides is not lacking for edifying English, if what you are looking for is a page-turner with captivating plot twists and gripping characters, this is not the book for you. Its merits are not so much as a story, but as a commentary on our specie's inflated self-image. Mankind looks at his technological marvels, his buildings, bridges, roads and machines, and takes himself way too seriously, perhaps even thinking he is above the culling of the herd the biosphere visits upon other beasts, when their numbers grow unsustainable. But when disaster strikes, and his creations ultimately rust and crumble into dust, the bipedal ape is rendered just another accumulation of animated flesh, reduced to using crude survival techniques to raise himself from his belly, lusting after flesh like a horde of ravenous, stumbling zombies. Meanwhile, earth abides in spite of all of Homo sapiens pretentious, contrived glory. The planet purges itself of his infection, and nature reasserts itself, exalting the humble and humbling the haughty, perpetuating life with or without man and his illusions of grandeur.
Men go and come, but Earth abides.
— Ecclesiastes 1:4