Thursday, December 12, 2002

When I returned to work at the coal mine yesterday, the unisex restroom for non-miners had changed its sign and is now the women's restroom. This means that peeing now involves a reasonably strong chance of seeing a middle aged guy showering. And job satisfaction took another severe hit.

Last night I finally finished Earth Abides by George Stewart. It is apparently a classic in the "one guy emerges from the woods to find that most everyone else on Earth has been wiped out" genre, and Stephen King's The Stand is a clear successor. Written in 1948, it seems to me that at least implicitly it reflects tensions from the early Cold War, or even resilient anxieties from WWII. The plot, in short, is that once the above event happens, "Ish" (the central character) travels around the country, settles back in the East Bay, finds a wife, and gathers a small community around him. We follow this first year and the 22nd year intently, while getting quick takes on a much longer span of time. My opinion is that this is one of those "novels of ideas" that is better as a book of ideas than as a novel. Stewart's points about how quickly civilization would fall apart and about what might be needed to start rebuilding are well laid out and seem reasonable. (The proliferation of computers--not just in homes and offices, but as components of so many things--may make some of these ideas even more obsolete, however.) The prose, though, is often awkward and stilted, and many points are either beaten to death or hinted at to death. You can keep telling us that Joey is the only hope, George, and that he is very frail, and that there are a lot of dangers about, but don't expect us to be shocked (SHOCKED!) when something happens. The more we get Ish's thoughts, the less real any other character becomes. For me, this book is best as a historical relic and as some meditations on the possibility of the sudden fall of civilization; if you're looking for a good yarn, you can do a lot better...

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