George R. Stewart’s “Earth Abides” provokes intelligent debate as it examines the question of “what would happen to the world and its creatures without man” (25)? A world without man, is this concept even possible? Perhaps not in the literal sense, as far as most individuals’ imaginations will allow, but a world in which the human population has been greatly reduced in its numbers is more than feasible. The significant reduction of homosapiens to the point of extinction and their ability to recover is the focus of “Earth Abides.” This scenario of elimination realistically swept the human race before in Europe and Asia, 1346-1353. This time period, marked as the “Black Death,” was the most famously recorded history of the Black Plaque, a disease that wiped-out one-third of the population. Stewart references this fact in his novel, denoting this fictional story is somewhat based in lived truth. However, the author does not contrive a fantastical theory of what specific pestilence/disease obliterated one-third of the United States’ populace. Like the main protagonist, Isherwood Williams (Ish), who literally wakes up after recovering from a venomous snake bite to discover the world has changed without a concise understanding; the reader, too, is thrust into a new Earth not far from their own distant future that they must navigate and learn at the same time as Stewart’s characters, reminiscent of the character Rick from the Walking Dead television series. One effective writing technique is the purposeful omission of dates which keeps the story more realistic to readers who are not fans of futuristic sci-fi/cli-fi dramas.
This novel is not about global weatherization or climate change, but the story does have a cognitive link to the subjects, which is conservationism. Conservation of proliferated existing resources and their stored reserves is the echoing theme of most ecologist and environmental activist as the starting point to stop the destruction of the Earth’s atmosphere and land masses. In “Earth Abides” there are only sporadic mentions of weather in relation to the environment and its effects on vegetation growth, but Stewart notes throughout the novel the importance of conservationism: Ish is always worried that the Tribe will run out of supplies, and how Ish works to secure the libraries and the books of information for future generations. Stewart not only demonstrates the importance of not overusing/wasting the Earth’s natural resources, but also manmade fundamentals like matches. The novel focuses more on responsible “usage” more than climate change and humans’ role in negatively effecting the Earth. Stewart notes that the “almost complete removal of man had not in the slightest affected the earth’s relation to the sun, or the sizes and locations of the oceans and continents, or any other factor influencing the weather” (98). The preceding demonstrates that the Earth will continue to evolve without human inhabitants, the Earth is not dependent on man for its survival, but the reverse. Humans need the Earth and its natural elements to abide the needs of man as they distort atmospheric and core components to ensure mankind’s continued existence. Stewart further refocuses the narrative from being considered hardcore cli-fi by referencing an author named Brooks and his book “Climate through the Ages”; observing that the book “was not of the slightest value to human progress. Climate change was not a practical problem. In any case, this book had been superseded. He could just as well throw it away or tear it to pieces” (Stewart 292). The aforementioned quote could easily be misinterpreted; however, Stewart is not suggesting the book was useless when it was originally wrote with its predictions and concepts. Stewart is ironically indicating that given the current circumstances that Ish and the other survivors are presently living through, Brooks’ informative intent is inconsequential, but relevant during its original publication. Interpretively, this reference is sarcastic irony, but more to the point it reads as if the author was not as concerned with climatology as he is with conservationism.
George R. Stewart’s “Earth Abides” is a highly recommended, wonderfully written, third-person narrative that will stand the test of time. The third-person narration allows for a conversational tone as the author engages readers using diction and terminology appropriate for contemporary audiences, young and older. Respect for the environment and responsible conservative use of the Earth’s resources, natural and manufactured, is clearly delineated; yet infused with sub-textual themes of racism, sexism, and blasphemy that will hold readers’ attention.