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earth abides

In an interview, Octavia Butler said her books Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents “were largely inspired by the news, by the trends that seemed important to me.” She was claiming that her ideas weren’t so much imagination as the logical effects of current events and policies. As I watch us destroy more and more of the world and observe the inhumane ways we often treat each other, I tend to agree with her apocalyptic vision—it sure looks to me like were closer to killing our selves and our planet than to perpetuating the species.

Post-apocalyptic stories and other narratives about or set in a more-or-less dystopic future have become popular in recent times and I enjoy them at least as much as the next person. My top 100 list has a few in the genre—Parable of the Sower; He, She, and It; The Road; and a few others, depending on how you classify books like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451—and I’ve read countless others. The form appeals to me because of a certain fatalistic streak in me, a paranoid strain that I believe comes from my upbringing as a fundamentalist Christian hearing stories of a future full of religious persecution that would force true believers out of jobs, out of their homes, and into the hills for their very survival. Adding to that is a critical eye on our society’s and world’s behavior toward the natural world, behavior that seems to exploit and destroy more than it supports and helps flourish

In part, I believe the form appeals to writers, movie makers, and other story tellers because it creates an environment devoid of humans, but with the world itself relatively intact. On that relatively blank slate, they are free to create new visions of society, to explore aspects of human nature that are more hidden and harder to get at within the strictures of “civilization” as we know it, and to follow the logical arc of the choices they see us making now, a commentary on the wisdom or lack thereof of our current policies and decisions.

Earth Abides (George R. Stewart, 1949) is all of these, but primarily a commentary on what the author sees as the universality of human nature: to survive; to not do more than is needed; to band together in communities; to forget about and at the same time to mythologize the past. The story is that an unknown virus, spread by the increasingly fast world travel, kills off all buy a miniscule fraction of the human population.  Our protagonist, Ish, survives because he’s bitten by a snake—the poison and the virus make him sick, but ultimately neutralize each other. From this perhaps far-fetched beginning, the rest of the story progresses in a relatively reasonable fashion, though the dangers of an anarchic society and even the gruesomeness of mass death is very tame by today’s standards. Before the infrastructure begins to deteriorate, Ish takes a cross-country road trip, an American tradition, but now with a grim and desolate twist. He starts in Oakland, California, where he grew up and instead of roadside restaurants and kitschy tourist attractions, Ish finds empty lots, wind-strewn roads, littered city streets, and a few, rare, furtive, cautious inhabitants, mostly in shock from the disaster they somehow survived. New York City is a ghost town, newspapers blowing, skyscrapers looming. The trip helps Ish realize there is no help coming from the outside; he must do his best to make a new life back in the Oakland hills.

Soon Ish finds a few other survivors, including a woman with whom he connects. They form a community, dealing with the continuing deterioration of the infrastructure (first the electricity stops, then the water). Children are born and outsiders contact their group. Together they deal with living and dying and eating and keeping a roof over their heads. Written literacy, scientific knowledge and other trappings of our civilization are slowly disappearing. Ish himself, as a pre-disaster elder in the community, eventually becomes something of a demi-god, someone who knows about the world in ways that are slowly being lost. He tries to teach some of this knowledge, but much of it is irrelevant and arcane in a culture mostly concerned with living, loving, and protecting what those they care about.

There’s a fascinating moment when Ish’s partner is revealed to be part African-American, which “explains” her fundamental stability, her unconcern with the abstract, and her connection with the earth. She’s been passing and the potential confrontation with truly difficult issues in our present society is elided in much the same way that Stewart avoids all the sticky moments in the book. It’s all swept away in the primacy of the Earth and the universal, fundamental forces that drive life on the planet—bigger than us, not worth fighting.

This, ultimately, is the lesson that Stewart is trying to teach us: the Earth will go on pretty much the same, whether we’re here or not and our more or less petty machinations amount to little in the end. I believe he would like that knowledge to inform our daily lives. Although Thich Nhat Hanh’s work certainly isn’t in this genre tradition, his writing contains a similar, but more thoughtful and parsimonious treatment of humanity’s place in the world. And, while I sympathize with that to some degree with Stewart’s hope for the world apart from humanity—a hope not shared by all who write about a post-apocalyptic future—it seems like a lot of book for this message.

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