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January, 2009 : Essay:

The Decline and Fall of the Human Empire

George R. Stewart's Earth Abides

When I last visited my sister, Brenda Bright, she presented me with a treasure gleaned from a library book sale: a first edition of George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949)—a bit too battered to be really valuable, but still a worthwhile addition to anyone's science fiction library. I promptly resolved to reread the novel, which I had not picked up since purchasing the Fawcett paperback edition in 1971, on the flimsy grounds that I might garner some good quotations for a possible sequel to my Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005). In this quest I was modestly successful—my favorite being "What a strange thing then is this great civilization, that no sooner have men attained it than they seek to flee from it!"—but I did not find its occasionally quotable passages to be the novel's most striking feature.

To be sure, as is often the case when one rereads a cherished novel from one's youth, Earth Abides was in some respects a disappointment. As a whole, despite the dozen or so passages that I recorded for potential future use in a book of quotations, I did not think the novel was particularly well written. It seems a classic example of the sort of story Brian W. Aldiss memorably lambasted as the "cozy catastrophe," in which the annihilation of most of humanity, and the complete collapse of civilization, turn out to be blessings for the survivors, who end up enjoying a comfortable, carefree existence by living off canned foods and luxuriating in abandoned mansions. Stewart's insights into ecology, which were remarkable in his era, can no longer impress contemporary readers who have grown up with an environmental perspective.

Yet, as we celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of its publication, Earth Abides remains an important novel, I would argue, because it almost uniquely serves to bridge a puzzling gap in the vast literature of post-holocaust science fiction.

That is, as a general rule, stories about Earth after a global nuclear war, or after some comparable disaster (like the mysterious plague that wipes out most of the human race in Earth Abides), fall into two categories. First, there are stories that take place soon after the cataclysmic event, such as Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" (1969), the Mad Max films, and David Brin's The Postman (1985). Protagonists remember civilization and make use of its artifacts: cars and motorcycles are still being driven, carefully maintained generators provide pockets of electrical power, messages are broadcast via still-functioning radio stations. Stories may involve fierce competition for some scarce resource, such as gasoline or young women, or focus on the conflict between normal humans and mutants created by radioactivity, who may be regarded sympathetically or unsympathetically. A few stories may pessimistically envision the rapid extinction of humanity (like Nevil Shute's On the Beach [1957]), but most conclude with the sense that people will survive, and that civilization will soon be restored.

Second, there are stories that occur hundreds or thousands of years after the great catastrophe, such as Andre Norton's Star Man's Son (1952), Poul Anderson's Vault of the Ages (1952), and Roger Corman's film Teenage Cave Man (1958). Civilization and its technologies are entirely forgotten, save perhaps for a few vague legends; surviving relics may be shunned as taboo, or revered as religious icons. People largely live like our prehistoric ancestors, hunting and gathering to stay alive and wearing animal furs as clothing. The characteristic story features a bright young man who, despite opposition from tribal elders, sets out to figure out the mystery of humanity's lost past, discovers how glorious human civilization once was, and finally inspires his fellows to begin a concerted effort to restore the human race to its previous, exalted status.

The question rarely addressed is: how exactly might humanity ever get from the first scenario to the second scenario? In the stories set in the years immediately following the disaster, people hardly seem to be in the process of forgetting everything about their past; indeed, they are fighting hard to preserve as much of it as possible. There remain plenty of books around, full of useful information, and lots of people who can read them. Even a novel that appears to describe a process of abandoning the trappings of civilization, Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s classic A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), actually shows how people living in a post-holocaust world would struggle to save the artifacts and documents of their lost civilization—even if they did not fully understand them—so that people in some later era could rediscover their true meaning and reconstruct a technological society; despite its unusually long timespan, then, A Canticle for Leibowitz remains a post-holocaust story of the first type, in which knowledge of past civilization lingers on and eventually leads to a renaissance. The near-complete amnesia regarding human history observed in Norton's novel and Corman's film, thus, seems inexplicable.

This is precisely why Earth Abides is so significant—because Stewart explains that, if a worldwide catastrophe did occur, such a complete loss of our civilized heritage would not only be possible, but would in fact be inevitable.

The first problem is that, if some disaster wiped out most of the human race, the few survivors would probably not be intelligent enough to keep civilization going. Science fiction writers and readers usually like to think of themselves as smarter than other people, so that the protagonists of science fiction novels are usually smart people. But Stewart, never part of the science fiction community, felt no impulse to make his random sampling of human society an unrealistic gathering of geniuses. Thus, while Stewart's hero Isherwood Williams, or "Ish," is an intelligent, university-trained anthropologist, the other people in the community he forms conspicuously lack his mental abilities. True, they may possess a sort of worldly wisdom helpful in resolving daily dilemmas, like "Em," the Earth-mother figure who becomes Ish's lifelong companion; true, they may possess certain practical skills, like George the carpenter. But they can generally be characterized as "stupid"—a word Ish uses repeatedly to describe the people around him—and hence unable to reconstruct the complex civilization that has collapsed. As Ish sees the problem, "Only by the power of intelligence [...] had mankind ever risen to civilization, and only by further exercise of that same power, would mankind ever rise again." Today, well aware that questionable measurements of human intelligence have historically been employed to justify and maintain prejudicial practices, we may not feel comfortable classifying and castigating certain people as hopelessly "stupid"; indeed, Ish's criticisms of his companions in these blunt terms may strike contemporary readers as politically incorrect. Yet we can still embrace the basic logic of Stewart's position: the people who happen to survive a global catastrophe will tend to be typical people, lacking the special acumen we would prefer if assembling a team of individuals to rebuild human civilization, and their children and grandchildren will likely be typical people as well.

Second, even if the survivors did include some reasonably bright people like Ish, they would still lack all of the background, and all of the knowledge, that an advanced civilization requires. A crucial crisis in the novel involves the running water in people's homes, which has remained available even though the other utilities long ago shut down. Inevitably, however, something in the system breaks down and the water stops flowing. Since no one in the group is a hydraulic engineer, they have no idea what might have happened and cannot even begin to track down and correct the problem; so, members of the community have to adjust to getting their water from streams and wells. At times Ish ponders going to a library and trying to absorb massive amounts of the important knowledge that he doesn't have, but he always recognizes that the attempt would be futile: there would be too much for one person to learn, and there would be no chance of finding all of the experts in various fields that relaunching an advanced civilization would require on a decimated, depopulated Earth.

Finally—and most dauntingly for true believers in the mythos of science fiction—Stewart argues that people in a post-holocaust society would ultimately feel no desire to restore their technological civilization. Human beings enjoyed rich, fulfilling lives long before they began building machines, and they would quickly adjust to the absence of machines. We may believe, for example, that people today have become hopelessly addicted to forms of entertainment like movies and television, but if civilization did grind to a halt, people would not begin working obsessively to restore electrical power and maintain all the cameras and other equipment they would need in order to resume making, and resume watching, filmed narratives; instead, they would simply find other ways to entertain themselves. And even if people of the generation that survived the catastrophe felt some strong impulse to keep their cars running or keep the electric lights on, the people of later generations, who had never experienced such luxuries, would have no reason to struggle to maintain or re-create them. When his small community first forms, Ish is determined to keep knowledge of civilization alive by forcing the children to go to school, but when the one child who seemed responsive to the information he was teaching is killed by a virulent disease, Ish abandons the effort, closes his school, and decides to teach the children something that would be more appealing to them, and more appropriate to their situation: how to build a bow and arrow, a device that the children first embrace as an enjoyable game, but will later need to efficiently hunt for their food when the canned goods run out. At the end of the novel, the elderly Ish observes that his younger compatriots have effectively constructed a new social order which completely lacks technology, and that they are perfectly content with it; when Ish asks the young man assigned to care for him if he is happy, he replies, "Yes, I am happy. Things are as they are, and I am part of them." To Ish, then, "the future was certain. The Tribe was not going to restore civilization. It did not want civilization."

And this is how Stewart stands in sharp contrast to the traditions of science fiction, which has long argued that the human race is driven, and destined, to achieve greatness, to build better and better machines, to conquer the universe, to create a scientific utopia. Stewart argues that civilization is just something that happened to come about, due to certain "Forces and Pressures," and thus was always something that might with equal probability go away, due to other "Forces and Pressures." The end of civilization, Stewart argues, might even be a blessing; at one point, he likens it to "Frankenstein's vast monster," something that people had long "tried to escape." In other words, we cannot assume that humans would be traumatized by the loss of their advanced civilization; they would be just as likely to feel liberated.

Thanks to Stewart's vision, we can now see how humans, after a global disaster, might indeed completely abandon advanced civilization, forget about all its past glories, and settle into the simple lifestyles of their distant ancestors. However, even as Stewart bridges the gap between the two characteristic narratives of post-holocaust fiction, he is also contradicting the message in both of them; for their shared argument is that humanity will always return to the path of steady, upward progress, whether it takes a few years or a few thousand years. Stewart instead predicts that humanity, in response to a catastrophe, would more likely choose to permanently embrace a contented primitivism; despite the arguments of Norton, Anderson, and Corman, the bright young men in such futures would never have any interest in digging about in old ruins or trying to fathom the mystery of their origins. As I interpret Stewart's novel, the author never provides the slightest hint, or the faintest hope, that human civilization as we have known it will ever be restored.

Thus, if we wish to ponder what a sequel to Earth Abides might be like, we must turn away from works like Anderson's novel and Corman's film and examine another singular science fiction novel, and a rare soulmate to Stewart's classic, Brian W. Aldiss's Hothouse (1962), published in America with a better and more evocative title, The Long Afternoon of Earth. On an Earth so far in the future that it has stopped rotating, and is connected to the Moon by enormous spider webs, humans have devolved to become only one of several minor species competing for resources in the enormous jungle that the Earth has become, and they utterly lack any knowledge of technology or awareness of humanity's previous accomplishments. At the end of the novel, an intelligent morel offers Aldiss's hero Gren the opportunity to embark upon a mission into outer space to rediscover and reconnect to the past achievements of his distant ancestors; Gren declines the offer and returns to his tribe to happily live out his life without troublesome ambitions, not worrying about the impending death of the planet Earth and his species. Once, when I was younger and more dogmatic, I argued that Aldiss had spoiled his novel by giving it the wrong ending; now, newly enlightened by George R. Stewart, I suspect that he was simply giving his novel a more realistic ending.

In any event, both Earth Abides and Hothouse are clearly novels that belong on anyone's list of essential science fiction reading, both for their qualities as literature and for their distinctive opposition to the traditional attitudes of science fiction. And while Stewart's work has secured a reasonably prominent position in the canon of science fiction, the fascinating, atmospheric, and involving Hothouse remains a novel which is not as well known as it should be—probably because, in a manner even more forceful than Stewart's gentle fable, it is offering the science fiction community a message that it does not want to hear.

Copyright © 2009, Gary Westfahl. All Rights Reserved.

About Gary Westfahl

Gary Westfahl is the author, editor, or co-editor of twenty-four books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005),The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005), the co-edited critical anthology Science Fiction and the Two Cultures (2009), and the recently published Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009) and its companion volume, The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009).


Jan 7, 06:57 by IROSF
Comments? Leave them here.

Article is here.
Jan 7, 08:32 by David Bratman
I've tended to feel dissatisfied with what feels like the overwhelming ennui with which Stewart's Ish and his fellows face the disappearance of the knowledge of civilization. But this article makes a good case for the integrity and believability of this approach.
Jan 7, 15:48 by Corie Ralston
Nice essay! I had the same reaction as dbratman when I read Earth Abides - it seemed the reason civilization can't be rebuilt is because the protag Ish is so amazingly lazy. He sits around thinking about how much smarter he is than everyone else and just lets everyone else do all the work for him - everything from child raising to making meals. At one point he gets off his butt and teaches everyone to use a bow and arrow, and that advances their society hundreds of years. Imagine if he had done something like that every day! But Gary Westfahl's essay was excellent and made me think about the book in a way I hadn't before. Thanks!
Jan 15, 19:43 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Excellent article, but I find I disagree with the conclusion that it is more realistic and inevitable that mankind would abandon civilization altogether in the aftermath of a world wide catastrophe. Even if civilization is so decimated that mankind exists in a prolonged Dark Age, any survival of the human race itself will lead to a re-civilization.

If it were natural or inevitable that mankind desired a civilization free existence, then civilization would never have arisen. Since it already has, it is more than safe to assume that it would again. Civilization is more than the invention and application of technology. Civilization is the inevitable outcome of socialization. Man kind is a social animal; it is natural for us to congregate and organize. Technology arises from those few curious and intelligent humans who observe and discover the processes of natural phenomena. Technology is not a requirement of civilization, though it certainly helps.

Additionally, the definition of advanced civilization is vague. For instance, take running water. While the pressurized water system we rely on today are complicated, technologically sophisticated infrastructure, the principle of pressurized water is not. The Romans did quite well without diesel driven pumping stations, and Knossos had complex underground sewer systems 4000 years ago. Had Stewart's protagonist bothered to go to the library, he might have learned that. Even if civilization should break down to the point where we have completely lost all infrastructure and it has been a thousand years since the pumps last run, the principle of a pressurized water system is simple enough that even a relatively "stupid" carpenter could build one using only gravity and some easily made containers. Certainly, the recreation of a modern Hollywood sound-stage would be quite beyond our hypothetical carpenter. That, however, does not mean that the re-buiding of advanced civilization by the "stupid" is impossible. It all depends on your definition of advanced.

Natural human curiosity and inventiveness will lead to civilization after a catastrophe unless it is specifically suppressed (which would require an infrastructure of its own and thus a civilization). While Stewart's and Aldiss' characters may have decided to give up on civilization altogether, there will be others who will wonder what the lights in the sky are, or ponder of what use a waterfall could be.
Jan 18, 08:58 by Bluejack
The real question is, could a post-technological humanity persist in which people were either (A) so debased that they did not attempt to better themselves by full use of their problem-solving faculties, and thereby re-create some sort of civilization (albeit with a dramatically different social structure), or (B) so biologically impaired that the *cannot*! -- could either no-tech future come to pass and still be characterized by humanity as we know it, or, if so, would it even be worthy of story telling???

I realize that the no-tech, animalistic futures are certainly plausible within the context of a total environmental breakdown; but I have not personally encountered a compelling story in that milieu.

Perhaps, product of an earlier era, I'm more driven by the "Canticle for Leibowitz" paradigm.
Jan 19, 18:20 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
I suppose that both of those possibilities are within the realm of probability, but I would put my money on B being more likely. Then again, would B be considered human anymore? Are problem-solving and curiosity inherent in humanity, and would lack of those things mean we are no longer human?

I would have to answer that in both cases A and B that we would have to lack those very things that make us human to have a no-tech post-catastrophe future where humans would not be able to rebuild civilization.
Jan 21, 01:16 by Joe Prisco
I think what Stewart & Walter Miller demonstrate in their novels is well observable around us; few people actually do understand the technologies they use every day, and there's nothing subhuman about it. Stripped of these, few urban Westerners have anything like the ability to support themselves. The main forces *against* 'civilization' are inertia and greed. No-tech seems to me the *most* likely post-catastrophe outcome, as any real tech use requires some large-scale organized cooperation -- which in turn requires optimism, the least likely attitude following catastrophes. Hence no-tech being the rule for most of human existence; it's the lowest-common-denominator to which social levels fall -- the occasional, spectacular forward bursts being exceptions.
Jan 21, 16:20 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Interesting point, but what do you mean by 'no-tech'? Do you mean no televisions, supermarkets and electric stoves, or do yo mean the absolute absence of technology? Humanity has never been without technology. Making fire is a technology, as is making a simple fire-hardened spear. Flint knapping is a technology.

You are right that most of the West have no idea how to support themselves without our cars, computers and electricity, but even if we are reduced to the most basic level of survival, we will have some sort of technology. A rudimentary bow and arrow will spur innovation to make a better bow and arrow since a better bow and arrow will favour more successful hunting and thus the survival of the individual or tribal group. Technological advance is thus self-perpetuating; given even the simplest technology, mankind will seek to develop that technology for more efficacious or easier use. Continued survival all but demands it.

Yes, advanced technology, such as our electrical or water supply infrastructure, does require large-scale organized co-operation. Technological advance from the Stone Age onward did not. If by 'no-tech' you mean some sort of Paleo-lithic level of development, then I am convinced that mankind will inevitably regain a more advanced level of technology (though it may take even longer the next time). If by 'no-tech' you mean the absolute absence of any technology, mankind would be reduced to a level on par with our most distant ancestors. In that case, would we remain human at all?

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