We live today – literarily, literally –
in a landscape of dystopian stories.
Creative people with at least half a brain are writing stories and novels, making movies, podcasts, etc. etc. which decry the end of civilization as we know it. I’m not always sure what their point is, but more and more dystopian tales seem to have knocked once-more popular works of murder and mayhem, if not off their pedestals, at least set them a-rocking.
If this is so – and you and I both know it is – why, then, read a dystopian novel of the end of civilization written some 75 or so years ago?
The novel is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and its theme is nothing if not contemporary – in fact, timeless. Let me elucidate the reasons.
It has a strong protagonist named Ishmael (an homage to Melville’s Moby-Dick, perhaps?), a professor who is insightful, has an innate curiosity to understand his dilemma; “Ish” has a powerful desire to resume life in a familiar social setting along with a strong desire to avoid the mistakes that got civilization into this mess;
It’s set in California, once considered an Eden of sorts, yet promixate to all sorts of natural and human disasters (if I may separate the two); Neil Young sang about, “three young girls who cried / The West Coast is falling, I see rocks in the sky”;
The story is as real as it can be as Ish begins his cross-country drive to see just how bad things got, and to try to figure out why he’s still alive; while he questions and attempts to restore human life to some kind of order, he – and the reader – become increasingly aware it’s a Sisyphean task;
We soon see just how fragile human civilization really is; the earth’s populace is far more fragile than we might think, and it’s decimated by the same flawed thinking as that of the alien invaders in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds novel (made into the scariest Halloween radio broadcast ever);
There is no “morality tale” aspect: no monsters to slay, no particular human act to cast blame upon; large or microscopic, every living thing has to eat so the existential dystopian perspective is irrelevant. But what emerges instead is the deeper sense of morality inculcated in each of us when faced with determining the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s very personal; sometimes it’s an act of group conscience. Whatever the situation, it’s always there for the individual human and the human race. We need our morality to persevere. But does it apply more broadly to all life and the esential nature of things? Perhaps not, as we see in Stewart’s Biblical choice of dedication (and title): “Men go and come, but Earth Abides.”
When I ordered my copy of Earth Abides, I asked the bookseller to obtain the Houghton Mifflin/Mariner edition with the Foreword by Kim Stanley Robinson, author of his own 2020 dystopian novel, Ministry of the Future. Because I’d listened to the Audible version of it, I was interested in learning how Robinson regarded the earlier work.
Robinson uses another Biblical term as the metaphor to discuss Stewart’s theme: the fall (of humankind):
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned . . .”
In Earth Abides, the “sin” that topples mankind isn’t defined as such but rather a disease one person passes on to another. In the Biblical sense a sin is wrong; for one person’s wrong action, a sin was launched into humankind. Robinson, without casting blame, invokes another fall: “. . .there is now good evidence from archaeology, earth sciences, and genetics indicating that humanity was once almost wiped out as a species, around seventy thousand years ago . . .” leaving perhaps as few as two thousand humans alive, he concludes. Some have said it’s happened even more often over our reign on earth. This leaves the question in my mind: are we humans, as the Greek mathematician-philosopher Protagorus said 2,500 years ago, the measure of all things?
Stewart published his book in 1949. Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine how utterly different our life was then, and interesting to note the absence of consumer-level electronic technology – really, almost all technology, save for the automobile. (For example, the first car with an automatic transmission was the 1940 Oldsmobile.) Has technology brought us the world we desired from its ever-expanding implementation? It’s certainly introduced a new plethora of moral and ethical problems to solve. But focusing more on our point, are we still, in these fraught days of one deadly virus after another, still the same fragile humans with our ever-tenuous attempts at socialization and equally fragile civilization, as with Ish and his people in Earth Abides? Are we as ill-prepared for a disaster as they were in his novel? Is there anything we can do, individually or collectively, to insure the species will survive?