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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:

  • After the End: The novel opens with a mutant strain of measles wiping out civilization.
  • 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 grows cotton even though though they don't have any use for it, so they burn it as an offering to their Gods.
  • Alternate History: By the end of the book it is around what would have been the 1980s or 1990s, but with the rusting remnants of the 1940s surrounding them.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: The nature of Evie's mental disability is a mystery even to the characters. Ish seems to think Evie had been born like this, but the children suggest that her handicap resulted from lack of nurturing after her family died in the plague. As none of them had known Evie before the apocalypse, they cannot be sure either way.
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  • Ambiguously Evil: Two of the first people Ish meets are a couple who wave him to him greeting, but who evoke a sinister, predatory aura that causes him to avoid them, although we never find out if he was right to or not.
  • Angry Guard Dog: At one point, Ish encounters a pair of sheep dogs who are still protecting and herding a flock of sheep even though their master is dead, and bark hostilely at any stranger passing by.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 2, bordering on Class 3. It is speculated, but not definitively proven, that the particular strain of measles that killed billions could have been the result of incautious biological research. The protagonist, Ish, decides that based on past evidence of species extinctions through natural mutations of diseases, that humanity could simply have been unlucky enough to encounter a particularly virulent mutant strain of measles.
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  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama: This turns out to be the case between Em and Ish when she reveals the "horrible secret" she was hiding, namely that she's a mixed race person. It ends up being subverted because Ish doesn't care about any of that and even if he did it wouldn't matter because he loves her anyways. He even seems somewhat amused that she was worried he'd shun her over this after years of being happily married, especially considering that most of the human race is dead and it'd be incredibly stupid and arbitrary for survivors to reject each other over something as meaningless as racial "impurity".
  • Broken Bird: Possibly Evie. One of the first people Ish encounters when he starts inspecting towns is a wide-eyed teenage girl who flees at the sight of him, leading him to suspect she's been subjected to Attempted Rape.
  • 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.
    • Most of the people Ish encounters post-plague are friendly, honest, and basically morally decent.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Em seems to have some kind of unspecified trauma in her past that she's reluctant to discuss with Ish. It's arguably subverted when it turns out the thing she was so worried about telling him is that she's an octoroon. It's worth noting that she did have a troubled past because she lost her family in the plague but she didn't try to conceal that from Ish, seeing as he also lost his family. Besides, it is also possible that Em has faced rejection or other types of prejudice in the past because of her "mixed blood."
  • Future Primitive: The small remnant of humanity that survives the plague ends up reverting to a Neolithic lifestyle. Ish tries to teach things like science and math to the children of the survivors, but such knowledge is no longer viewed as valuable when the primary concern is day-to-day survival.
  • Happily Married: Ish and Em. Even though they do have their disagreements, they still love and value each other as they are.
  • Hit So Hard, the Calendar Felt It:
    "This is the Moment Zero, and we stand between two eras. Now the new life begins. Now we commence the Year One. The Year One!"
  • Hope Springs Eternal: Though civilization has not recovered the way Ish hoped it would by the time he reaches old age, he observes that despite their lack of historic knowledge, the younger generations are still carrying out a good quality life. He watches the younger members of his clan finding joy in their daily chatter and in their playtime with their dogs. The clan is even beginning to connect to outside communities.
  • 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.
  • No Bikes in the Apocalypse: When the cars are gone, they hoof it.
  • Only the Chosen May Wield: To his surprise, Ish's hammer ends becoming this.
  • Passing the Torch: Ish passes on his hammer nearly at the moment of death.
  • The Plague: In the course of discovering what went on in the world while he was out of commission with a fever, Ish finds out a particularly virulent form of measles made its way across the Earth, killing a very high percentage of those who caught it.
  • Scavenger World: Played straight, then deconstructed. Ish and his tribe initially live off scavenged canned food and other goods. Ish knows that the tribe cannot life like this foreverThe children of the tribe become largely illiterate and uneducated because a conventional education has little to do with day-to-day life as a tribe of scavengers and hunter-gatherers. Eventually, Ish teaches the tribe how to shoot a bow and arrow after he gives up on schooling them, and they become hunter-gatherers
  • 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).
  • Take It to the Bridge: The tribe is in the middle of the Bay Bridge when Ish realizes it is time for Passing the Torch as noted above.
  • 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.
  • Tragic Hero: Ish becomes this in the end. His dreams of preserving knowledge and rebuilding civilization are a failure. His beloved son Joey dies, the only child who took education seriously. The books in the library will go unread. He lives to old age to see his failure and unwillingly becomes a god-figure to a tribe of hunter gatherers. At least, he taught his people how to shoot a bow and they seem to be happy with their lot in life
  • Wasteland Elder: By the end of the novel, Ish has outlived all of the other original survivors and is seen as a source of odd knowledge and advice by a tribe which now includes his grown great-grandchildren. During his prime, he tries to educate the new generation about the pre-pandemic society to restore their former glory, but it's a losing effort.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Isherwood is convinced that the collapse of society caused by the plague is only temporary and that mankind will eventually rebuild. It's only near the end of his life that he accepts that the pre-plague civilization is most likely gone forever.
  • 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.