Here’s a quote from close to the start of the book – I find it so powerful, so detached yet timeless and all-encompassing, it could be the beginning of the introduction to the post-apocalypse manifesto. I’ll split it in three parts, scattered throughout this review.
*Stretched out between its rivers, the city will remain for a long time. Stone and brick, concrete and asphalt, glass–time deals gently with them. Water leaves black stains, moss shows green, a little grass springs up in the cracks. (That is only the surface.) …*
I discovered Earth Abides on what I think was this Reddit thread on great post-apocalyptic “rebuild the world” books – yes, I pick up book recommendations on Reddit. Only sometimes, okay?
Written in 1949, it was conceived during a time when people weren’t exactly discovering the threat of human extinction for the first time, but when the distinct possibility that it could come to pass was more prominent in the popular imagination than it ever had been before (that we know of). As such, I consider it one of the granddaddies of today’s post-apocalyptic fiction – a genre whose popularity has become reflective of our times in the same way puritan, sexless Victorian ethics once paved the way to timeless romantic novels.
* …A window-pane grows loose, vibrates, breaks in a gusty wind. Lightning strikes, loosening the tiles of a cornice. A wall leans, as footings yield in the long rains; after years have passed, it falls, scattering bricks across the street. Frost works, and in the March thaw some flakes of stone scale off. (It is all very slow.)…*
In Earth Abides, a rapidly-spreading deadly disease wipes out almost everyone on Earth (everyone in the continental US, at least). Our protagonist Ish survives only by what could be understood as coincidence. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, he discovers in fine practical as well as poetic detail all that was left behind, living off the utilities and commodities that would still keep running and existing for a short time without any input from man. Let’s say it involves a different sort of road trip across America.
He quickly discovers he is not alone, and what happens next is telling of where humankind came from and where it might soon be heading towards.
I found Earth Abides entertaining, thought-provoking and very poetic, in the sense that many parts of the book dealing with everyday things were looked at from a completely different perspective – all just by using unusual or, at least for us, outmoded manners of speech. I found that unexpectedly fulfilling. It seemed to capture perfectly the outlandishness as well as the perfect ordinariness of the situations and scenarios at hand.
On top of that, what surprised me was how fresh it all felt, how much of it could still have been written today, barring some very sexist, racist or discriminatory stripes that could be attributed to the writer just being a man of his era. If I were to be perfectly honest with you, even they were more fascinating to look at than offensive, like an old photograph depicting socially unacceptable things that were commonplace not so long ago. It’s interesting how many things seem to have changed, but maybe haven’t – including, of course, our interest in stories telling of our inevitable demise and virtual extinction. Virtual is the key word here, for: Men go and come, but Earth abides.
It’s a solemn and soothing feeling.
I’m giving it 4 stars because I thought it was a bit too long. It felt epic, sure, just a bit drawn out. I recommend it to all who like thinking about what the world would look like without us and the thought fills them with calm instead of terror.
* … The rain washes quietly through the gutters into the storm-drains, and if the storm-drains clog, the rain runs still through the gutters into the rivers. The snow piles deep in the long canyons, drifting at the street corners; no one disturbs it. In the spring, it too runs off through the gutters. As in the desert, a year is like an hour in the night; a century, like a day.*