Earth Abides by George R Stewart

When only the dull survive…


Isherwood Williams has been on a field trip in the wilderness for a while when he is bitten by a snake. For a few days he’s out of it, feverish as the poison works through his system. On recovering, he drives to the nearest town only to discover that while he’s been in isolation, a plague has destroyed nearly all human life. He sets out on a road journey through America, looking for other survivors and gathering material for his forthcoming travelogue…

OK, I made up that last bit, but honestly that’s what this feels like – a guide book to America written by someone rather boring. Maybe it would resonate more if these were places I knew or had some kind of emotional response to, but I don’t, and so it’s just a list of street names interspersed with amazing insights like, in the absence of man, weeds sprout between paving stones, and dogs go hungry.

A few pigeons fluttered up at Rockefeller Center, disturbed now by the sound of a single motor. At Forty-second Street, yielding to a whim, he stopped the car in the middle of Fifth Avenue and got out, leaving Princess shut up.

He walked East on Forty-second Street, the empty sidewalk ridiculously wide. He entered Grand Central Terminal, and looked in at the vast expanse of waiting-room.

“Waugh!” he called loudly, and felt a childlike pleasure as an echo came reverberating back from the high vault, through the emptiness.

I believe later in the book he finally meets some people and sets up a kind of back-to-nature life, but I gave up at the 20% mark – rapidly becoming the standard point where I abandon books for boring me to death. To be fair, this may have seemed more original when it first came out in 1949, but it’s been done so many times since, and done better. It doesn’t compare in any way to the brilliance of The Day of the Triffids, for example, published just two years later, or more recently to the unsettling starkness of The Road. Where both those authors recognised that the primary thing that makes even post-apocalyptic novels interesting is the interaction of humans, Stewart chooses to have Ish, as he’s known, feel superior and judgemental towards the few remnants of humanity he encounters, and quickly decide he’d rather be on his own than with them. So all that’s left is endless unemotional descriptions of the effects of nature returning to a world without humanity, sometimes through Ish’s eyes, and sometimes through annoying little inset sections in italics where Stewart chooses to give a kind of running lecture on the subject.

Book 69 of 90

And perhaps because our own pandemic has allowed us to have a tiny insight into how the world reacts when man retreats, I didn’t even feel he’d got it right. He says, for instance, that wildlife continues to shun the cities – not what happened during our various lockdowns when the internet was awash with pictures of all kinds of creatures revelling in our absence and dancing in our streets. He also has Ish constantly fearing he’ll come across piles of the dead, but he doesn’t. Where are they all? If everyone suddenly got sick all at the same time, so sick that most of them died, who on earth buried them? Stewart hints that everyone died in hospitals so has Ish avoid them, but no hospital system in the world has capacity to take in the entire population simultaneously, a fact of which we have all recently become only too aware. Ish wanders round New York and sees no corpses, smells no putrefaction, etc. It’s as if humanity has been vaporised by aliens rather than killed by disease (which frankly would have been a more fun story).

Perhaps, not being a housekeeper, he had not previously noticed dust, or perhaps this place was particularly dusty. No matter which! From now on, dust would be a part of his life.

Back at the car, he slipped it into gear, crossed Forty-second Street, and continued south. On the steps of the Library he saw a grey cat crouched, paws stretched out in front, as if in caricature of the stone lions above.

At the Flatiron Building he turned into Broadway, and followed it clear to Wall Street. There they both got out, and Princess showed interest in some kind of trail which ran along the sidewalk. Wall Street! He enjoyed walking along its empty length.

George R Stewart

I’ve been abandoning an excessive number of books this year, due to my own plague-inspired blues, so perhaps I’d have had more patience with this at another time, and perhaps it becomes more interesting once Ish finally becomes part of a community. But right now it’s simply boring me, so I’m giving up the struggle and don’t see myself ever returning to it. As post-apocalyptic books go, this is the dullest I’ve ever tried to read. In a world full of interesting people, what a pity that tedious Ish is the one who survived…

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42 thoughts on “Earth Abides by George R Stewart

  1. A great warning! I do like well-written dystopian and post-apocalyptic books – but poorly written ones give all the gloom without any insight or learning or even excitement, just further suffering in the act of trying to read. A good decision to stop early.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Somehow, I don’t think you would have warmed to this even if all things had been equal. These quotes you showed are so pedestrian and lackluster, and I can’t imagine much happening to change the energy of the piece to make it even vaguely interesting. Having said that, it might be an ideal cure for sleeplessness, so perhaps not a complete waste.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was surprised at how dull it was given its reputation as a classic, but really I thought the writing was so poor, Anyone can just list streets, if that’s all it takes to make a good book! I’m off down the High Street now, and might turn off onto Cowgate or perhaps I’ll pass the church on New Lairdsland Road. Ah, New Lairdsland Road! With its pavements and… er… road… 😉


  3. Hmmmm…thinking….nope, not interested in this one, FictionFan. I like the way you put that – A guide book to America, written by someone rather boring. It sounds almost as though this was trying to be a reflection on what life would be like without many humans – and failed at it. The whole question of good post-apocalyptic fiction, in my humble opinion, is what happens to humans. How do they survive? As you say, how do they interact when that happens. If that, well, humanity isn’t in the book, little wonder you got bored.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Maybe it was supposed to be a kind of ecological look at dystopia, but I definitely feel any dystopia relies on human interactions to make the reader care. Its the survival element that makes them interseting, more than the destruction. And all those street names with no descriptions – pah!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I just can’t get up the willpower to continue with a book that isn’t immediately grabbing me at the moment. Some I’ve put aside to try again when life gets back to normal, but others, like this one, have had their chance!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When I saw your one-star rating, I knew I was in for a treat with your review … and you didn’t disappoint me, FF! This sounds positively dreadful! No wonder you abandoned it. I’m sure I would have, too, if I’d have even picked it up in the first place. Looking on the bright side — more time to read better stories!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I was politer to this one than to some of them though! 😉 Yes, at any time I can’t see the point of struggling on with a book that isn’t working for me when there are so many others to read, but especially now when my concentration isn’t up to usual standards!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not inclined to read this either, partly because I don’t give up on books no matter how tedious they might be. I feel like I ought it to the author, and besides, I always find something that salvages the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I used to struggle to the end of every book I started but in recent years I’ve been much more brutal about abandoning them if they don’t grab me. So many books, so little time! But I’d probably have stuck with this one longer to see if it picked up if I wasn’t in such a reading slump when I read it.


    • I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been trying to read it at the worst of my slump, but it just didn’t grab me at all, sadly. When I found myself wishing Ish would just catch the plague and die, I knew it wasn’t going well… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! I usually try harder with books, but at the moment I’m falling back into slumping too easily whenever a book doesn’t grab me, so it’s better just to ditch them and move on to something else.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh my!!! 😳 😱 Even that bit of synopsis you included made me want to quit reading. And I haven’t started the book! (Not that I plan to start.)
    Thanks for hanging in as long as you did! Have some cyber chocolates!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thank you! With these older books, they were probably more interesting at the time, but dystopian end-of-the-world fiction has been done so often now, and so much better…


  7. The plot is appealing so it’s a shame the story and main character were so boring. I don’t think I’ll be reading any plague books for a while but I loved The Stand by Stephen King (which in some ways sounded like a more interesting version of Earth Abides) and The Road and The Day of the Triffids, which you referred to.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This sounds a bit like it could actually work better as a movie. A good visual montage of how the world has changed and then move on with the real plot! Your note about animals in cities reminds me of a recent documentary Pearl and I watched where it showed all the animals that now live in Chernobyl. I wonder why Stewart thought they would stay away from cities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know – it seems so odd. I’d imagine animals would move in straight away to scavenge – they do it while we’re still here after all! That was partly what annoyed me, that he presented his ideas as if they were fact.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s a good point. It’s not like animals stay away from human areas now. Unless it was supposed to be a statement about the animals being more aware of this plague than humans? Perhaps that’s giving this author too much credit!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ha, yes, I think it probably does give him more credit than he deserves! I really gave it up too early to be fair to him though – maybe he explained things better as the book went on. But he simply didn’t convince (or interest!) me…

          Liked by 1 person

  9. That’s a very astute observation FF-dystopian novels only work if we see other humans-being a jerk on your own gets old real quick for the reader! Now I really want to read Day of the Triffids-or at the very least, watch the movie haha

    Liked by 1 person

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