Earth Abides: A Prescient Pandemic Novel from 1949

Right now you could probably divide book lovers into two groups: those who are reading books that provide escape from the troubling reality we’re living through, and those who are reading books that have already imagined and explored versions of that reality and thereby offer a form of psychological vaccination against our worst fears.

A year ago, when the world was normal, I surveyed here three novels published last mid-century that have become classics of disaster fiction. Two of them, Nevil Shute’s famous On the Beach and Pat Frank’s less well known Alas, Babylon, adopted the unsurprising premise that nuclear war was the most lethal threat to mankind and depicted, with very different styles and emphases, the personal and social implications of the end of civilization.

But the third, which predated the others and is, to me, the best of the three, imagined a global pandemic of unknown origin that wipes out almost all human life, leaving the rest of the natural world and all the physical artifacts of civilization intact. Long before The Andromeda Strain, the eerily prescient Earth Abides, published in 1949 by a seasoned popular novelist named George R. Stewart, identified a mutated virus as the not-unlikely agent of the end of the world as we know it.

For obvious reasons, I was recently drawn back to Earth Abides (the title is from Ecclesiastes I,4- “men come and go, but earth abides”), and I didn’t get far, stopped in my tracks by the epigram to Part 1:

“If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation…it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people.”
-W.M. Stanley, Chemical and Engineering News, Dec. 22, 1947

Even in 1947, smart people were warning against what we’re now living through.

A personal confession: I’ve always had a thing for the apocalypse. I suspect many of us have. I grew up in a time when there were duck ‘n’ cover drills in our public grade schools, so I perhaps can be forgiven for having dreamed of nuclear war as a pretty foolproof excuse for having not done my homework. In high school I had brief brush with evangelical fundamentalism that informed me of the imminent, much-to-be-desired end-times, the great winnowing called the Rapture. I loved apocalyptic sci-fi, from J.G. Ballard’s The Wind from Nowhere (in which it’s the weather that does us in) to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (zombies) to, of course, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. When I was older and in college and should have known better, such was my pseudo-intellectual alienation that global disaster seemed just the sort of good swift kick in the pants that the established order of things deserved. And even now, all the social distancing and self-isolation can seem like a belated validation of my long-neglected, carefully suppressed inner introvert.

The protagonist of Earth Abides, a young man named Isherwood, having absorbed the reality of his new existence as one of the few survivors of a global pandemic, muses along these very lines.

He realized that in some ways, very curiously, he felt a new security and even satisfaction at the contemplation of a solitary life. His worries in the old days had been chiefly about people….he had never been a good mixer; no one had asked him to join a fraternity. In the old days, such things were a handicap to a man. Now, he realized, they were actually a great advantage. Because he had sat on the edge of so many social gatherings, not quite able to mingle in the conversation, listening, watching objectively, now he could endure not being able to talk, and again would sit and watch, noting what happened. His weakness had become strength.

The reliable sci-fi trope of the solitary survivor in an emptied cityscape has become all too real to us, but in 1949 Stewart had an eye for detail of startling prescience. Short-term survival for Isherwood is in a sense easy, as all the bounty of American civilization is his for the taking, there in his deserted town in what must be the Berkeley hills, across the bay from an empty, untouched San Francisco. The dangers come from the rotting of hidden corpses, the random human survivors he encounters, and from the populations of animals — rats, dogs, cattle— which, unchecked by humans, begin to ravage the landscape. Eventually there is the inevitable Eve-figure —a black woman, no less —whom Ish takes to calling “Mother of Nations.” Other survivors arrive, and a miniature society is reconstructed by guesswork and compromise and ingenuity over the ensuing decades, each year counted from Year Zero and named for the significant events that occurred since the last time the sun made its turn north from the Golden Gate Bridge, still standing in the distance.

All this is chronicled in a prose style that ranges from italicized news extracts to internal monologue to third-person omniscience to the pseudo-Biblical tone of some future historian recounting an ancient legend of humanity’s fall. But the focus is consistently, deeply interior, in the experiences and musings of Ish as he ages and becomes, almost against his will, the “last American,” the leader of a small, rudimentary civilization and a god to its grandchildren, who have no memory of the “Old Times.”

Apart from a few hours’ diversion, what can one take away from this only mildly dated, chillingly serious novel of biological apocalypse? Earth Abides survives the seven decades since its publication as a wonderfully humanistic portrayal not only of the terrible fragility of the lives of individuals and societies, but of their unlikely durability. And in this particular moment, it reads as a stern reprimand from out of the past.

For surely what its author hoped was that this harrowing vision of a world brought low by a novel virus would be a self-negating prophecy, that this story, if there was anyone left to read it 70 years hence, would seem an antique expression of an obsolete worry, rather than the stubbornly timely and realistic warning that it still is.


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