Literature / Earth Abides

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A classic 1949 novel by George R. Stewart, which depicts the new tribal society which slowly arises in (the ruins of) Berkeley, California after most of humanity is wiped out by a viral plague. Features much rumination about ecology and human society. One of the first of the Cosy Catastrophe genre, and a major influence on Stephen King's novel The Stand.

Contains examples of:

  • All Hail the Great God Mickey!: One character knows that the ruins of the cities and bridges were built by people called "the Americans". He then wonders if the land and skies were built by the older Americans depicted on coins.
    • A society formed by the descendants of black sharecroppers still offers sacrifices of cotton to long-dead white landlords, though the sharecroppers themselves have no use for it.
  • Alternate History: By the end of the book it is around what would have been the 1980s, but with the rusting remnants of the 1940s surrounding them.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains researching for a paper he's writing, Isherwood Williams finds a hammer left by miners. He keeps it the whole time, and eventually the children of the tribe he founds see it as a holy relic and the symbol of leadership.
  • Cosy Catastrophe: Played straight, but also averted as a lot of survivors are shown as being in shock and as unlikely to survive - for example when the book's protagonist Isherwood Williams meets two people living the high life in New York City, and realizes they aren't equipped (in gear or mentality) to make it through the first winter.
    • The reservoir conveniently keeps delivering clean water to their houses for a long, long time before a pipe rusts out.
    • Somewhat averted with the other survivors Ish meets briefly, a composite family of semi-literate black share-croppers in the southern US. But for the death of those around them (including their landlords), their lives of subsistence farming are continuing just as before.
    • Completely averted until Ish leaves California. After being driven off by a cult near Los Angeles, the only even remotely friendly survivors he runs across are a Native American settlement outside Albuquerque ( from whom his sons are able to secure seed corn on a later trip), the sharecroppers mentioned above, and the couple in New York. Ish is without meaningful human companionship until after he returns from his trip (almost the first third of the book) when he meets Em.
  • Last of His Kind: Eventually, Ish becomes the only one in his community who could be considered "civilized" and remember the old world. Tellingly, he's even referred to by that point as "the Last American."
  • Ludd Was Right: Ish's Tribe increasingly revert to a more primitive, tribal existence over time, to the point of using pennies as spear-points. Something that Ish himself laments, but ultimately accepts as for the best even if it takes generations before civilization gets back up.
  • Ruptured Appendix: Averted. When Isherwood lists things going in his favor for the apocalypse, the fact that he's already had his appendix out is #1.
  • Slept Through the Apocalypse: The protagonist was hiking in the Rocky Mountains at the novel's opening, gets laid low by a rattlesnake bite, and returns to find the world has ended. The novel suggests that it was the snakebite itself that allowed Ish to survive the plague (while recovering from the bite, he suffers measle-like symptoms, and the plague is described as a kind of super-measles).
  • Time Marches On: They name every year that passes, by the time the book ends it's into what would be the 1980s, not that anyone's keeping track.
  • World Half Empty: what's left behind after the plague. Ish's Tribe, the only meaningful population center in what's left of San Francisco, consists of only a few dozen people (many of whom are his descendants) until decades after the Event when they merge with a similar group to the north.

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