The novel Earth Abides by George R. Stewart is supposedly in the genre of science fiction. It's one of those books that during most recent pandemic times and climate crises was touted by bookshops to move from "science fiction to the Australiana section". The narrator Ish is a young geographer who heads up into the mountains near his native San Francisco on a field trip to research his PhD. Earth Abides was published in 1949, so not long after a real, apocalyptic world event and like Camus' The Plague, is considered a great existential novel of its time.
Ish's name could derive from Ishmael, the sole survivor of the Perquod's encounter with the great white whale, or perhaps from an Indigenous American man called Ishi who walked into Western, urban society after his tribal society was vanquished by disease and colonisation.
I've been listening to the audio version of Earth Abides after reading Mike Davis' Dead Cities and Other Tales. Apocalyptic fiction is so good for long drives but my love for this genre has history. What would you do/be/become as one of the last humans on Earth? I mean really, I love this shit. Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Attwood, John Wyndham, Jim Crace and H.G. Wells combined philosophy, poetry, ecology and wholly sensible thoughts to create their dark visions of our humanitarian future.
In Earth Abides, Ish emerges from the wilderness after having suffered a rattlesnake bite. He's confused about whether the snake venom also caused a weird illness, with his rashes and lesions and a high temperature. The electricity and water are still on at the general store when he gets there but nobody's home. He leaves a note, promising to pay back the fuel bill. Gradually he realises the extent of the plague. There are moments of Ish moving from civilised to feral when he breaks the window of a newsagency to read the last papers published (seven days previous 'Situation Acute!!!') to when he requisitions a police officer's motorcycle.
There are no zombies in Earth Abides and I do thank Stewart for this. Instead there are some pretty mediocre survivors: a drunk with haunted eyes, a grifting white couple you'd normally place on the outskirts of a crack den and a mad hoarder who has stashed 24 copies of the same magazine edition, just in case. Ish wonders ... did any of the good, any of the useful people survive? In general, it seems that humanity has been cleanly, almost surgically excised from the world.
One of the most poignant parts of the novel for me were reading how nature took back the cities. Cities and indeed dwellings take constant maintenance to keep nature at bay. My own house looks like Halloween right now because I like to let the daddy long leg spiders take care of the bush flies. (Caveat, I do vacuum up the poor buggers twice a year). In Stewart's scenario, when the culverts aren't cleared and the weeds aren't sprayed, Highway 66 devolves, or evolves, into sand and then trees.
This is fascinating! "This grandly suspended, inorganic metropolis," wrote Earnest Bloch, "must defend itself daily, hourly, against the elements, as though against an enemy invasion."
In 1996, New Scientist writers called upon ecologists and other experts to try and qualify how quickly nature would take over cities, once humans were removed.
"Within five years, New Scientist found, weeds would indeed conquer the open spaces, pathways and cracks of the city ..." The buddleia, sweet lil butterly bush, was found to be the biggest bad ass of bad asses in this whole article.
So Buddleias are able to grow through concrete to source nutrients and water (don't plant them near your septic tank folks) and are basically touted as the plant that will thrive and dismantle our infrastructure, destroying our tallest buildings and roads. THE BUDDLEIA WILL TAKE YOUR SOCIETY DOWN. When humans don't have enough energy or workforce to keep them at bay, those motherfucker buddleias will rule.
Once again - I just love this shit. In the end (?) Ish creates a society of survivors and it's always fraught with its own existential questions. Given the era of writing (1940s) he sprays himself with DDT to get rid of fleas, speaks of his marriage partner as 'fulsome' or 'fertile looking' and engages in all the racial dynamics of the time, which is odd but ... okay George..
I fell asleep several times listening to the audio book, waking to hear that ants had died out because they didn't have as many cadavers to feed on, fell asleep, woke up to when the big cats predated upon the small house dogs, fell asleep, woke up at dawn thinking, 'This is an okay day, today.' Had some strange, lucid dreams in the interim.
In the morning, my dog licked my spare hand as I pushed the fruit bread decidedly into the toaster and the electric kettle bubbled to a shut behind me.
GR Stewart, Earth Abides, Random House, 1949
Mike Davis, Dead Cities and other tales, New York, 2002.