Will you survive a global genocidal disease? That is the horrible existential question squarely confronted in Earth Abides, published in 1949. Although the subject matter might seem horrible, the problems encountered are approached in a mild and objective manner, but the solutions of the protagonist are frustratingly simple-minded. Perhaps that is the best way to present this material, as it leaves the reader the opportunity to offer better ones.
The story begins with a University of California at Berkeley student of geology named Ish vacationing in the Sierra mountains being bitten by a rattlesnake. He goes back to his cabin and is sick and feverish for over a week. When he ventures back out to civilization everyone is dead! Fortunately for Ish, much of civilization is operating on automatic inertia, so electricity, gasoline and food are freely available. He drives back to his parents’ home in near Indian Rock (37.8921 -122.2727) in Berkeley. Over the next few days of searching around he finds a few living people, but they are dying of what he calls secondary causes of acute stress reactions. Inexplicably he decides to take a long drive to New York City,and along that long trek he finds only a handful of living people, so he comes back to his childhood home and settles down. Eventually, a few people come together around him to form a tiny tribe, and start reproducing.
I have lived in Berkeley for fifty years, overlapping all but the first few years of the fictional story, and I met my spouse in the UC Library, (37.8725 -122.2595) where many of Ish’s more bookish moments occur. My real life in this same area was much more positive than his fictional one, but his was surprisingly positive. One problem I had with the story line was that so much of the book was concentrated in the Berkeley Hills area, near his home. It has beautiful views of the San Francisco Bay, and the bridges, but is a poor place to live a primitive lifestyle for the 30-plus years of narration, when a couple of miles toward the flats nearer the Bay beside Albany Hill would have been better for ranching, farming and fishing. It’s where the first people, both Indians, Spanish ranchers and farmers lived, near the creek at (37.9 -122.3). Ish and the Tribe had a problem getting water, and yet the creeks run year around. I know because I lived on nearby Strawberry Creek for seventeen years.
Another annoyance for me was their use of cars rather than bicycles for local transportation, but these are trivial technical details.
The more critical things for long-term survival were seeds for growing crops, rather than pillaging thirty-year-old canned foods from abandoned grocery stores. Retch. One touching moment was when in a sustained moment of self-doubt, Ish is comforted by his wife’s simple statement, “I don’t want you to be different.” He had some questions of how he should handle superstition in his growing tribe, and seems to opt for the acceptance of it as necessary to keep people functioning. There was an offhand quote about genius that defined his favorite child, when he solved a comparison problem. I would quibble with it a bit and say, genius is the capacity of seeing what is there and what is not there. He said:
“Genius is the capacity of seeing what is not there.”