Ish is one of the few survivors of a world ending plague. He awakes in the hospital to a world where civilization has died out and left only scattered pockets of humanity. He must develop and adapt in order to become a leader and establish a new world for humanity. The land must be tamed the communities must be rebuilt and the wilderness that was once only a matter of curiosity must now be battled and tamed. It is one of the most common templates for an epic tale. Ordinary man meets extraordinary circumstance and becomes a hero because he must to survive. Eventually, said hero finds the love of his life in some odd place and they complement each other and allow the slight faults that each shows to be overcome and bring out the best in one and other allowing them both to survive and become better human beings whilst creating a better society.
Well, the thing about Earth Abides is that Ish isn’t necessarily the most heroically minded individual. When Ish meets his moments for extraordinary deeds he just treats them like he’s getting milk from the store. He’s apathetic to a near sociopathic level, treating everything as a thought experiment instead of a reality. He even says that he is an academic and spends most of his time exploring and observing with no real urgency.
Eventually, Ish stumbles into a new civilization and decided that it’s probably a good idea to do some sort of rebuilding/survival related activities. He also gets a wife in that he doesn’t like all that much, debates about whether he should reboot slavery, practices a little bit of eugenics and lets the power, water and pretty much every other useful tool left behind decay and break with the exception of his trusty hammer.
He could use his ecological knowledge to develop a superior society in a world devoid of scarcity that is a blank slate ready to be molded into an environmentally symbiotic wonderland where people and nature are one. He could use his limitless time and resources to read the thousands of books that explain how to maintain and utilize the tools that the world has left behind. He could read books on philosophy and create a society that is fair and devoid of the evils of man.
However, Ish just keeps stumbling along as if he’s working a 9-5 job doing the least amount of work possible.
Enough to keep everyone alive but nothing more. He attempts to teach the new generation literacy and other academic minded practices but ends up writing off the process and just teaches the one kid that he sort of relates to.
Eventually, we come to the end of some trials passed with a solid C- average and Ish hopes that the new civilization will be better than the one left behind. This is the same civilization that Ish could have shaped, taught, and guided. But, he doesn’t concern himself with these things just hopes that things will be better and moves on.
Ish is no hero but he is the perfect protagonist if your goal as a writer is to represent the nature and concerns of humanity during the time period. He relies on what he has and reacts when he must growing accustomed to whatever is left. He hopes things will change as an ideal but doesn’t fight to achieve any of the aspects of the ideal world he sort of imagines. He allows the forces that can take control to do so and basically just lives within those constraints.
While the story itself may be dry and boring, the realism of a culture that floats along the surface of a world that seems too powerful to control or affect in any substantial way is a true and unique in the world of fiction. While science fiction writers are known for their social and political satire, they tend to imagine the worst cast scenarios and their books serve as warnings against the evils of mankind and the doom that it heralds. Earth Abides is more scientific realism than fiction and while the action may not be particularly dramatic it’s incites are incredibly interesting.