Rediscover: Earth Abides

"When anything gets too numerous it's likely to get hit by some plague," muses the protagonist of George R. Stewart's science-fiction classic Earth Abides (1949). Geologist Isherwood Williams, also known as Ish, suffers a rattlesnake bite while working on his graduate thesis in the Sierra Nevada mountains. During his recuperation, Ish is struck by a measles-like illness, which he soon discovers has killed nearly everyone else. Ish finds a handful of other survivors, travels a depopulated country and bears witness to ecosystems now freed from human civilization. As a primitive society rebuilds over several generations, Ish becomes more relic than leader, called the Last American with awe and respect by superstitious, bow-and-arrow hunting tribesmen.

In Earth Abides, George R. Stewart (1895-1980) explores the vulnerability of humankind to mutating viruses as a natural population control, and how such control, once successfully enacted, would affect the environment; the book's title comes from Ecclesiastes 1:4--"Men go and come, but earth abides." Stewart's biblical themes expand in the second half to a replenishing of the Earth narrative, including the fragility of such a small society and the endurance, or loss, of knowledge. Earth Abides was written when the post-apocalypse subgenre was in its infancy, and has been a major inspiration for later works, most notably The Stand by Stephen King. It was last published in 2006 by Del Rey ($16, 9780345487131). --Tobias Mutter

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