I was surprised by how much I loved this book. Wikipedia has a nice plot summary. Basically, a virus wipes out nearly all of the human population on the Earth. We follow a graduate student, Ish, who is one of the few survivors. Ish travels from California to New York – the descriptions along the way are worth the time it takes to read the whole book. Then he returns back to California, meets a woman, meets two more couples and they form a tribe and begin reproducing.
The quote at the beginning of the Wiki entry gets to the heart of what makes the book great:
Epic in sweep, centering on the person of Isherwood Williams, Earth Abides proves a kind of antihistory, relating the story of humankind backwards, from ever-more-abstract civilization to stone-age primitivism. Everything passes — everything.
There is a lot in the book for people interested in differences between men and women and for people interested in differences between high-IQ and low-IQ people. Ish is very smart but the rest of the survivors that he lives with are not – this becomes a major theme in the book. However, in the succeeding generations, intelligence isn’t particularly valuable. Only one of Ish’s children really learns to read. Ish spends lots of time preserving the library, but when this one child dies of disease, the fact that the library has been preserved is useless – there’s no one left to read (I found this part of the story heartbreaking – all that knowledge is effectively lost). Ish had to content himself with moving human history forward a few thousand years by inventing the bow and arrow and teaching his children and grandchildren to make fire. Heartbreaking.
Ish also comes around to loving dogs. After all, what are people without dogs?
His wife, Em, is portrayed as possibly the most perfect woman in all of literature. She is mother, wife, supporter, and comforter. At times Ish is upset at her inability to think bigger about restoring civilization. In the end, her constant efforts to simply take care of her children, her husband and her tribe seem more than sufficient. She perhaps, nearly alone through sheer determination, re-creates some semblance of society (though not civilization as we would recognize). The book is worth reading to see the differences between Ish and Em – between ideal man and ideal woman – alone.
In the end, are we to feel inspired by the slow re-building of humanity or saddened at the total destruction of civilization? The book is detailed enough that we can feel both, which is a testament to Mr Stewart.
My only criticism is that slight moral relativism that creeps into Ish’s view of his less-civilized children and grandchildren. He seems to be unable to state unequivocally that they are not better off than they would have been in civilization. I understand – and am willing to leave room for – the happiness associated with a more natural life (i.e. a life closer to nature without the benefits of civilization, which is a life impossible for anyone to live now), but I would not have trouble stating that a civilized, intelligent existence that would have allowed Ish’s son who could read to survive is a better one.
The book is supposed to have some libertarian sympathies. I didn’t see any. If anything, there was an argument for a natural monarchy. Ish becomes de facto monarch because of his intelligence. In his last act, he is expecting to pass on his (somewhat mystical) power. These realistic aspects of the story are, ultimately, what gives it so much power.