Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Fragility in Earth Abides

George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides is a fascinating book. I’ve read it three times now.  I found out about it via a two part radio adaptation from the Radio show Escape.  

  PART 1 PART2.  

These are good, but don’t do the book justice.

A brief synopsis via the always reliable Wikipedia:

"Part I: World Without End"
While working on his graduate thesis in geology in the Sierra mountains, Ish is bitten by a rattlesnake. As he heals from the bite, he gets sick with a disease that looks like measles. He recovers and makes his way back to civilization, only to discover that most people died from the same disease. He goes to his home in Berkeley. In the city near his home Ish meets few human survivors — a man drinking himself to death, a couple who seem to have lost their sanity, and a teenage girl who flees from him as someone dangerous. He comes across a dog (beagle), friendly and eager to join him. The dog, which he names Princess, swiftly adopts Ish as her new master and sticks by him for much of the book. He sets out on a cross country tour, traveling all the way to New York City and back, scavenging for food and fuel as he goes. As he travels, he finds small pockets of survivors, but has doubts about humanity's ability survive the loss of civilization.
He returns to his home in California, and finds a woman, Emma (Em), living nearby. They agree to consider themselves married and have children. They are joined by other survivors. Over time the electricity fails and the comforts of civilization recede. As the children grow, Ish tries to instill basic academics, teaching reading, arithmetic and geography but is largely unsuccessful.
Many children were born in these years and among them was Joey, Ish's youngest and favorite son. Joey very similar in nature to Ish, he demonstrates innate intelligence and a curiosity about the world before the epidemic, this leads Ish to believe that Joey is the key to the future.

"Part II: The Year 22"
Twenty-two years later, the community flourishes. The younger generation adapts easily to the more primitive world. They come to have a better grasp of the natural world than the adults, and when running water fails, the younger generation comes to the rescue, knowing where flowing streams may be found. Ish turns his attention from ecology to his newly forming society. One thing that he notices is that the children are becoming very superstitious. One day Ish asks for his hammer, an antique miner's tool found in the mountains, which he habitually carries around, and finds the children are afraid to touch it. It is a symbol for them of the old times. The long-dead "Americans" are now like gods—and Ish is too.
As years go by, the community begins to grow corn and make and play with bows and arrows. Ish presides at meetings, his hammer being a symbol of his status. He is given respect, but his ideas are ignored by the younger men.

"Part III: The Last American"
Ish spends most of his elderly life in a fog, unaware of the world. Superstition has set in; the tribe has reverted to a primitive lifestyle, hunting with dogs (the descendants of Ish's first dog) and bow and arrow. Occasionally the fog in his mind lifts. During one such time, he finds himself aware of his great-grandson Jack, who stands before him. Jack shows him that the bow and arrow have become more reliable than the gun, whose cartridges don't always work. Ish realizes that the former civilization is now totally gone. But he also wonders if the new world is that much worse off than the old world, and finds himself hoping that the new world will not rebuild civilization and its mistakes.

Themes in no particular order:

Technological knowledge is necessarily a collective thing. The more advanced the technology, competency resides in no one person, but as bits and pieces, distributed amongst thousands, who cooperate in using the knowledge to create and maintain complex artifacts and tools (e.g., automobiles and water utilities).  The more advanced and all-encompassing the technology, and the larger its scale, the more people are needed in order to maintain the collective technology/ knowledge.   If there is a significant fall off in numbers, the technology will not long survive, neither will the knowledge.  This rule applies to the advanced stages of the more ‘pure’ sciences just as much as to the applied.

Despite technological and medical advancement, human population is subject to natural checks and balances.  Through the memorable rat and ant episodes Stewart forces us to draw the parallels. Cycles of expansion and contraction brought about by abundance or scarcity of food will always occur. The main character, Ish, thinks along these lines, looking at the large scale of human history as being analogous to the shorter scale ant and rat episodes he and Em witness. The ants and rats live off the food leavings of American civilization, being no longer impeded by man, converting its bulk into bio-mass until exhaustion brings about starvation cannibalism and a die off. Over longer periods of time, Mankind, via agricultural technology, concentrates food, grows, forms compact dense civilizations and becomes susceptible to disease or environmental changes, which quickly kill these civilizations. In Earth Abides, civilization, now more global is laid low by a virus (a strain perhaps engineered by man himself), aggravated by density, it spreads, and quickly kills a vast majority globally.

The natural propensity of the scatterings of men living in the ruins of a large and affluent advanced civilization will be to live off the leavings. This is easy; a predictable case of taking the path of least effort.  The sheer amount of such leavings will lead the survivors to put off changing in any fundamental way. In the ruins of America, as portrayed in Earth Abides, the people left in San Francisco’s Bay area scavenge canned goods for decades. They choose to scavenge, putting off either learning how to maintain or repair the lost civilization’s leavings, or learning skills more suited to hunter gatherers.  Gradually, as the leavings are used up or are found to be unusable, the humans will be forced to learn some hunter-gatherer technology. There will be a transition period of sorts, where the primitives incorporate the leavings or surviving objects in their primitive technology, as for instance, the silver coins of 1940s America being beat into spear points, by the third generation.
Some domesticated animals will be ill equipped to survive without man, while others will manage. Those bred more for human aesthetic purposes are doomed. Those bred for more muscular work will survive.  Analogously, this will be the case for different sets of humans; those most specialized or most dependent on specialization and cooperative modern advanced technology are at greater risk, while more ordinary folk stand a better chance.

For some survivors, those living a very specialized sort of life only possible in urban centers of advanced civilizations, a sort of long term psychological shock will result from the death of civilization. They will gather its leavings around them, creating a cocoon of sorts within which they will insulate, living in denial, forestalling full cognizance of the catastrophe.  This is more likely to occur in intensely urban areas, such as New York as these tend to be populated by the aforementioned highly specialized people, unable to cope with primitive conditions. The Gotham couple Ish meets cannot even drive out of the city, never having had to acquire the skill. They are doomed by the first Northeast winter, but carry on with their middle class urban life, as if there is no danger, playing cards, the phonograph, and reading magazines left by the dead civilization. On the other hand, groups in rural areas are able to cope, and can grow their own food, exemplified by a black Arkansan family Ish runs into during his cross-country drive. 

Even those people that manage to carry on will gather the leavings about them, in an attempt to lessen the blow and/or maintain a sort of continuity with those that they have left behind. After a generation or two, much of the content of the libraries of the dead civilization, even if read, will be incomprehensible. Over time, after two or more generations grow up that have no experience of life in the technologically advanced civilization, they will come to think of the older parent civilization in ways that sound overtly mythical or religious. They will look upon old survivors with a sort of reverence. Stories of the lost technology will sound like magic. 

In all likelihood, literacy will severely diminish or disappear.

Disease will be less frequent due to the small widely scattered population.

Having also lost governmental institutions, human groups will of necessity revert to informal social controls. The impact of mortality on small groups will force those groups to think in a starkly utilitarian fashion should disease be introduced, in order to protect the lives of those remaining, and such events will force quick and decisive actions. Similar things will be necessary if threats are introduced by nomadic outsiders.  
A large civilization’s various prejudices, and its class or chaste systems will not survive a large catastrophe, because the surviving humans will see them as pointless and in fact needlessly restrictive in the new reduced circumstance. Ish and Em, an inter-racial couple, exemplify this in Stewart’s book.

Highly advanced technological civilizations are long in development, fragile, and once lost, lost for centuries, if hit by major catastrophes that significantly decimate the knowledge base and/or population.