December 13, 2013

Friday Review: Earth Abides

If Isherwood Williams is the future of the human race, perhaps best just to let it go and call it an eon.

I sometimes have a problem coming to things too late.  By the time I saw The Godfather and its sequel, the culture was so saturated in mob stories - from Casino and Goodfellas to The Sopranos (did I mention I came to it late?) - that it didn't seem fresh or all that interesting.  That's not a knock on its quality, just that it didn't really do it for me.

I get the same vibe from Earth Abides.  It is one of the first, if not the very first, examples of the post-apocalyptic "last man on Earth" subgenre of science fiction.  Published in 1949, it's won its share of acollades, including inaugural International Fantasy Award.  Heck, the version I read/listened to was even introduced by Connie Willis, no slouch herself.

So why doesn't Earth Abides do anything for me?  No, scratch that - why did it encouraged in me a positive loathing, at least at times?  Certainly part of it has to do with the genre itself having been played out ad nauseum over the ensuing decades.  The vistas of empty cities, decaying landmarks, overgrown lawns, and the like are all fairly common now.  Same for the struggle to survive in a world where the conveniences of modern life are gone.

That's certainly part of it, but a large part of my negative opinion of Earth Abides is that it is deeply entwined with its lead character, a hero who really is anything but.

Said hero, referred to as Ish for most of the book, is at an isloated cabin in the woods near San Francisco when some kind pandemic hits that wipes most of humanity off the Earth.  How he escapes that fate isn't really explained (it may have something to do with an infection from a rattlesnake bite he was fending off), but that's not important.  What is important is that when Ish comes down from the mountains to rejoin society, society's pretty much gone.

Early on Ish cites his background as a geographer and his termperment as giving him the perfect tools to observe how the planet will reclaim itself without mankind around to mess things up.  While this leads to some interesting digressions into the survival (or not) of particular environments or critters, it also, unfortunately, highlights the fact that Ish (and the author) are much more interested in watching than doing.  In fact, my main problem with the book is that we're trapped in Ish's head most of the time, even when he describes events that could serve as narrative jumping off points for some real drama.

A perfect exmaple - the book is divided into three main parts and covers over fourty years.  However, most of those years are blazed through in a pair of chapters in which Ish simply ticks of things that happend, including births and deaths that impact the makeup of the little tribe that just might be the future of the human race.  In addition to giving short shrift to those kinds of events, this allows Ish (and the author, by extension) to ignore lots of potential conflicts that could arise among a few dozen people trying to make a go of it after the world goes to shit.  There's very little dialog and even less tension, since everything is filtered through the lens of Ish's perception

Which is a major problem, because Ish is, sad to say, pretty much an asshole (I haven't disliked a main character this much since I read The Magicians).  His stand offishness doesn't come off as a chacater trait that will make it difficult to integrate with the new world, a barrier to overcome (which might have been interesting).  Instead, it's part of a smug superiority complex about himself compared to the rest of what's left of humanity.  Most of the first half of the book is taken up by an epic transcontinental journey during which Ish meets some other survivors, none of whom measure up to his standards for companionship.  Once he returns to the San Francisco area and settles down things get no better.  He repeatedly puts down the others in his little group as being stupid, not interested in intellectual matters, and generally inferior to him.  None of them are up to the task of rebuilding civilization, which Ish thinks is important, but not important enough to ever do anything about.  All of this wouldn't be so bad if we had something other than Ish's word to go by, but since we rarely see anybody else in action it's hard not to think he's just an elitest prick.

It doesn't help that Ish is very much a creature of his time.  The women of his little group (again, by his description only) are good for little more than house keeping, baby making, and a generic sense of "strength" in the face of even more generic adversity.  The one exception is Evie, a grown woman with some kind of mental deficiency or developmental disability.  For the most part she's simply an other, always kept apart from the tribe's subgroups when Ish feels the need to give us a census.  He even muses about killing her simply to be done with her and the problems she presents.

Evie's only part to play in the story is when an outsider, Charlie, comes to town with two of the younger men who have made another (aborted) transcontinental journey.  He's immediately "trouble" and starts to move in on Evie, probably giving her the only real attention she's recieved in years.  Ish is concerned and it's easy to see why - it looks like Charlie intends to take sexual advantage of a woman who's not metnally competent.  Good for Ish.  Only, it turns out, Ish's real concern is not for Evie's individual rights or bodily integrity, but that the resulting offspring would be idiots and, thus, drag the tribe down.  When Ish and a few others decide to off Charlie, it's less out of a sense of protecting an innocent than from some misguided low-tech eugenic concern.

It also doesn't help matters that Ish constantly changes the way he feels about the world lost and the world as it might be when he's gone.  On the one hand, he belittles some of his companions for holding onto memories of things from the old world that won't return for a long time, if ever.  On the other, he extols the virtue of books and the need to consume the knowledge in them, even if he never finds anyone worthy of his pursuit of that knowledge.  He wants someone to rebuild civilization, but it's never clear why as he didn't seem to have much fondness for it.

Which, oddly, counts for the greatest strength of Earth Abides.  For all its faults, the story itself is not the stereotypical one of surivovors picking up the pieces of a shattered world and trying to rebuild it.  Instead, Ish and his fellows just live, for years and years (all to easily, if we're honest), without undertaking great quests or schemes for rebuilding.  That's not the direction most works in the genre it helped spawn take, so kudos for that.

I recognize the prime place Earth Abides has in the genre's history.  And I recognize that, read at an earlier time with a more open mind, perhaps it would have a great impact on a reader (as it has to many others).  But on the verge of 2014, I have to admit that I just don't get it.  Earth may abide, but I don't think I'd be able to abide Ish for very long.

The Details
Earth Abides
By George R. Stewart
Published 1949
Winner, International Fantasy Award (1951)

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