The Book: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Originally published in 1949. The edition read was published by Fawcett Crest in 1971.
The Setting: Earth, San Francisco.
The Story: A young graduate student gets bitten by a rattlesnake while a plague wipes out nearly 100% of America’s (and presumably the world’s) population. He survives, establishes a community, and maybe, just maybe, saves the human race. Or maybe they save themselves.
The Science: Plague is a real thing and a real threat. There’s no question in my mind that a plague on the level of Stewart’s is a possibility. So I won’t talk about it. Instead – population science! Ish, the main character finds maybe a dozen people in his hometown of San Francisco. Yet a small community of seven adults forms. Pairs form (in one case, a trio) and babies start popping out like crazy. The second generation marries each other, and, by the third generation, a second group is identified and they begin to intermarry with them. Still, the population group is no larger than a few hundred. A few hundred individuals, isolated for a few generations will become very closely genetically linked. This can lead to a bringing forward of previously recessive traits, like hemophillia, and can decrease a population’s ability to resist diseases. Which is not good.
Stewart mentions that there are other population groups left, and eventually they will probably start to communicate and intermarry, which will increase the genetic variation of the groups. Nonetheless, a genetic bottleneck as described in this book has the potential for a profound impact on the future of the human race. But the science is quite good in this book.
The Reaction: I owned this book as a teenager. I’d read the first part more than once, but never read the whole thing. I’m not sure why. It’s a good book. It has interludes where it describes the changes in the land, or animal populations, or man’s inventions. It is written solely from the view of one character, from the moment of crisis until he draws his last breath, which seems unusual considering the epic scope of the novel. It is a solid book, and a clear inspiration for later post-apocalyptic novels.
The Cover: No credit for the artist. The cover depicts a small man wandering a street next to some piles of cars with a city of bubble structures in the distant background. It adequately conveys a sense of smallness and desolation, but darned if I know what those bubble things are supposed to be. Pretty sure they’re not mid-century San Francisco. Still, I kind of like it.
Etc: Apparently, this book was an inspiration for Steven King’s The Stand. I’m not at all surprised. A lot of the first part of the book is re-imagined in King’s book.
Next Up: “Defense Mechanism” by Katherine MacLean. Holy carp. The author is a woman.