George R. Stewart — Earth Abides

Earth Abides, published in 1949, is one of the earliest books to explore the idea of a post-apocalyptic world, in this case an air-borne virus that has killed almost the entire human race. It's all the ideas rather than the clunky writing and dated values that make it readable. What really sets this apart from anything else in the post-apocalyptic genre is that it finds the premise of a mass human dying-off and subsequent collapse and decay of civilization and its trappings over 60-odd years story enough; that to add all the post-apocalyptic elements one comes to expect, for example roving sadistic gangs to heighten the tension of the story, superfluous. Instead he gives a running commentary on how the world is changing, the slow wearing away of infrastructure, the fall of domesticated plants and animals and the flourishing of the once repressed, the extinction of almost all human diseases, the fading of bright colors from the world, the slow but sure shift in language from generation to generation. All pretty fascinating.

In one way or another, each in his own manner, everyone whom he had seen that day was going to pieces. He did not think that he himsef was. But was he actually still sane? Was he too, perhaps, suffering from shock? In calm self-consciousness he thought about it. After a while he took pencil and paper, deciding to write down what qualifications he had, why he might be going to live, even with some degree of happiness, while others were not.

First of all, without hesitation, he scribbled:

1) Have will to live. Want to see what will happen in world without man, and how. Geographer.

Beneath this he wrote other notes.

2) Always was solitary. Don't have to talk to other people.
3) Have appendix out.
4) Moderately practical, though not mechanical. Camper.
5) Did not suffer devastating experience of living through it all, seeing family, other people, die. Thus escaped worst of shock.

He paused, looking at his last note. At least he could hope that it was true.

Still he sat staring, and thinking. He could list others of his qualities, such as his being intellectually oriented, and therefore, he supposed, adaptable to new circumstances. He could list that he was a reader and so had still available an important means of relaxation and escape. At the same time he was more than a mere reader in that he knew also the means of research through books, and thus possessed a powerful tool for reconstruction.

His fingers tightened about the pencil for a moment while he considered writing down that he was not superstitious. This might be important. Otherwise he would even now, like the old man, be fighting the fear that the whole disaster has been the work of an angry God...

The protagonist, Ish, upon coming out of the mountains and arriving in San Francisco, decides to drive cross country to see what has happened. He comes across a few scattered people, including this one solitary couple in New York City:

In spite of lacking even the great and continual show of the passing populace of the city, still Milt and Ann did not seem to be particularly bored ... But if they were not bored, neither did they seem to have much pleasure in life. There was a great vacantness somewhere. From shock they were walking in a kind of haze. They were people without hope. New York, their world, had vanished; it would never live again in their time. They had no interest when Ish tried to tell them what had happened in the rest of the United States... He liked them, and he pitied them. He hated to think what would happen when winter struck, and the deep canyons between the buildings were clogged with snow and the north wind whistled down the groove of Broadway... He doubted whether they could survive the winter, even though they piled broken furniture into the fireplace. Some accident would quite likely overtake them, or pneumonia might strike them down. They were like the highly bred spaniels and pekinese who at the end of their leashes had once walked along the city streets, Milt and Ann, too, were city-dwellers, and when the city died, they would hardly survive without it. They would pay the penalty which in the history of the world, he knew, had always been inflicted upon organisms which specialized too highly. Milt and Ann—the owner of a jewelry store, a salesgirl for perfumes—they had specialized until they could no longer adapt themselves to new conditions.

Decades later, after failing to teach his small community's children and children's children to read, let alone agriculture, medicine or geography. Ish realizes that civilization as he knew it was long past saving and that a new one was being born. With this knowledge he teaches them to create bows both for hunting and fire making. Arrowheads, as it turns out, are much easier to make by hammering coins than by chipping rock.

Perhaps there were too many people, too many old ways of thinking, too many books. Perhaps the ruts of thinking had grown too deep and the refuse of the past lay too heavy around us, like piles of garbage and old clothes? Why should not the philosopher welcome the wiping-out of it all and a new start and men playing the game with fresh rules? There would be, perhaps, more gain than loss.

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