George Stewart, 1949
A plague has reduced the population of the earth to about 5000 people. The story follows
one of the survivors, a graduate student in geography, from the time of the plague to his
death about sixty years later.
It's not great literature by any stretch of the imagination — I wouldn't even go so
far as to say I enjoyed it — but it was a pretty good page-turner. I got through it
pretty quickly, curious about, initially, what the protagonist would find on his travels,
and later, what would happen to the tiny human community he founds.
I read this for the apocalypse class I'm crashing, and the professor left us on Thursday
with the question, "What American values are encapsulated in the Book of Revelation?"
After reading Earth Abides, I think I have an answer. America and Revelation both
share the sense that history is telic: that it is a story with a beginning, a middle,
and an end. Though today's history classes dutifully acknowledge the Bering land bridge
and Viking voyages to Vinland, 1492 is still the magic number that marks the beginning of
American history in the popular imagination. (A couple of generations ago it was 1620.)
The histories of countries like Egypt and China, by contrast, don't really have a clear-cut
"beginning"; they just go back thousands and thousands of years until we have to shrug and
say no one remembers what happened before that. Similarly, while in some cultures history
is viewed as just a string of events with no narrative arc, take a look at American history
textbooks sometime: they have names like The American Story and Triumph of a
Nation, reflecting the sense that US history is a sort of coming-of-age tale that we
can follow from its colonial childhood to its adolescent break with the mother country to
the internal struggles of its youth, culminating in its rise to glory as the preeminent
Viewed from this perspective, Earth Abides can be read as the story of a man who,
born and raised in America, has a teleological view of history that is repeatedly frustrated.
First he expects that the US government will reestablish itself and return things to normal;
it doesn't. Then he assumes that he, his handpicked band of survivors, and their children
will together restore civilization; as it turns out, he's the only one interested in doing
so. Then he thinks that his brilliant son will be the one who leads his generation back
to America's glory days; that son dies in childhood. At the end of the book, his
grandchildren and great-grandchildren are living in caves.
Of course, looking at the time scales involved — I'm the age of his grandchildren,
the kids in this class are the age of his great-grandchildren, and the distant future of
the last chapter is actually this very decade — Stewart, looking at the world of
today with mobs rioting and setting fires over sacrilegious cartoons, might well have thought
his story had at least in part come true. I was struck in reading Earth Abides by how
clearly it is the product of a different generation, the same generation I talked about several
years ago, here and here. Howe and Strauss
would call this a civic generation, which is a fair appellation for someone so civilization-minded
as the protagonist of Earth Abides; me, I kept thinking of him as Enlightenment Guy, not in
the general sense of being enlightened, but in the sense of embracing Enlightenment ideals. He
thinks of superstition as one of his key enemies, and of religion as superstition writ large; he
thinks of libraries, especially Doe Library on the Berkeley campus, as the temple of the Old Times
most in need of preservation; he is also very concerned with eugenics, a firm believer in
innate intelligence, and a chauvinist. Or perhaps it isn't he who is a chauvinist, but
the author. Chauvinism isn't the same as misogyny, and it is true that Earth Abides
is full of paeans to women... but these paeans are about their fecundity and emotional
strength. I dunno. It just says something that when the first child is about to be born
after the disaster, its parents refer to it as "he" even though 1949 was long before
sonograms were invented — and of course it turns out to be a he, because, y'know, boys come
before girls. And then later when the twins are born and one of them turns out to be the bright
one who will surely reestablish civilization and stuff — yeah, that's the boy twin.
This really started to piss me off. Would it have killed this guy to make the girl twin
the smart one? But no, she gets to be "straight and full-breasted" and that should be
good enough for her.
Reading this book did lead to one of the most vivid and disturbing dreams I have had in
some time. It started normally enough. I was teaching a class of some sort. The students
were adults. Outside, someone was setting up a yard sale, and it was pretty disruptive —
some students wanted to check out the yard sale, while others were annoyed by all the noise.
This led to some tension. Sharp words were exchanged. People started to have flashes of
argyria — their skin would turn silver for a moment. Then there was a loud pop, and
everything went black.
When we woke up, it was hard for everyone to think. No one could remember his or her name;
we stumbled around, referring to each other (and ourselves) by names like "man with beard"
and "rose girl" and things. The more time passed, the stupider we became. I was affected
like anyone else. I stood on the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft looking at a tree, but
it was too complicated for my brain to process, so I just saw a sort of claymation lollipop
tree. For a few days the newspapers ran stories that had been sitting in the queue for
publication, even though they were irrelevant — reviews of TV shows that never actually
ended up airing, that sort of thing. Then these were replaced by stories saying "BAD THING
HAPPEN" and suchlike, and then nothing. Soon everyone was illiterate. I could write my
name but nothing else, so I wrote it over and over again just so that I wouldn't lose that
last vestige of my former literacy.
The electricity stopped working because no one knew how to run the power plants. Running
water stopped because no one knew how to keep the plumbing working. At the end of the
dream I was walking down Bancroft Avenue, and the sidewalks were choked with people sitting
on the curb, drooling and waiting to die because they couldn't think of anything else to do.
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