George R. Stewart’s great novel hit the ground running. Since he already had a huge readership, the novel sold well. It was quickly honored by others, winning the first International Fantasy Award in 1951. That award was not a “popular” award, but one granted by masters of fantasy, science fiction, and futurist writing, to writers in those genres. It was a special honor for Stewart from his peers.
Stewart’s novel is a work of true speculative science fiction. It is not in any way the type of space opera popular in those days, but a work of fiction based on solid science and informed speculation. Yet the book has always been considered “science fiction” and is usually shelved in the science fiction sections of bookstores. That may seem to demean the high literary quality of Earth Abides, but it is one reason the book has never been out of print. Science fiction readers are, in the literal sense, “fans” – that is “fanatics” – for their type of literature. They deserve great credit for not only buying and reading the book, but for recommending it to others.
As Earth Abides captured the science fiction community, it also caught the attention of others, inspiring their comments and their own works. It could be said that Stewart’s novel was one of the most influential books of its time.
Consider the praise:
Carl Sandburg, the famous American poet, once wrote that he considered Earth Abides the best novel of its decade.
Robert Frost, another famous American poet, wrote to Stewart, Saying Stewart had “found a new type of thing to write.”
In “George R. Stewart and the American Land” Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner compared Earth Abides to Robinson Crusoe.
Stephen King called the book “Stewart’s fine novel.”
James Sallis, in the essay quoted in the previous post, compared Earth Abides to the paintings of Matisse, the music of Beethoven, and Homer’s Ulysses.
And consider the influences:
Philip Aaberg, Grammy-nominated composer and musician, considers the book one of the guiding lights that helped him through the angst of the Vietnam War era. In part to say “thanks,” Aaberg composed a beautiful piano piece, Earth Abides. Aaberg’s music was used in a National Geographic special, so millions have heard it – another large group of humans who have been enriched by Stewart’s novel, even if they don’t realize it. (You can buy Aaberg’s Earth Abides here, if you’d like.)
Another musician, Jimi Hendrix, considered Earth Abides his favorite book. Like Philip Aaberg, Hendrix wanted to honor its influence, so he apparently wrote at least one piece of music - Third Stone From the Sun – partly inspired by Stewart’s novel:
Stephen King based The Stand on Earth Abides. In one of his essays, King acknowledges the influence of Stewart’s book on his own work.
When family reverses forced a move from the urban energy of the Los Angeles area to the near-wilderness of the high San Bernardino Mountains, future Scientist/Writer James D. Burke,like Philip Aaberg, found comfort and direction in Stewart’s work. Dr. Burke would be the NASA-JPL Project Manager on the appropriately-named Ranger Mission, first successful US robotic mission to the moon.
Kim Stanley Robinson includes a reference to Earth Abides in The Wild Shore, the first novel of his fine Three Californias/Orange County Trilogy. The Trilogy, an intellectual tour de force, uses more or less the same settings, the same characters, and the same events in three alternative futures for Orange County, California. (Available at Amazon, if you’d like a copy.)
Others may not have been so directly influenced by Earth Abides, but acknowledge it. Greg Bear and Poul Anderson, for example, told me of the respect they hold for the novel.
Finally: as far as this weblog is concerned, the most important influence of Earth Abides has been on this author. After The Librarian placed the book in my hand, and high school friend Tom Vale and his family taught me the deeper meaning of the book, I found myself on a pilgrimage to seek the greatest and deepest truth of Earth Abides and Stewart’s other works. (Tom and Geraldine Vale later wrote the first major work based on a George R. Stewart book, US 40 Today.) That sauntering pilgrimage would lead to a life not unlike Stewart’s, encounters with others who felt as I did about Stewart and his work, and – eventually – to a meeting and friendship with Stewart and his family.
When the saunter led to Stewart, it also pointed toward the writing of a book about his life, and the deepest truth of his work – although I did not realize it at the time. Since then (and also I suppose before), I have lived like Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow :
If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will.
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
Earth Abides led me to the writing of a book about George R. Stewart, a literary agent who has become the book’s great champion, and publication by a fine independent publisher. McFarland Publishing is, like the publishing houses of the Earth Abides era, run by editors and lovers of good books.
It’s also led to some educational and research programs modeled on Stewart’s pioneering Whole Earth vision, programs which include the space agencies, land management agencies, universities, and Independent Scholars. If you should happen to visit Craters of the Moon National Monument in the near future, for example, ask to see the “Lunar Ranger” kit. Or view this fine film, produced by the park under the guidance of Chief of Interpretation Ted Stout and his exceptional National Park Service staff (film link is at the bottom of the page.)
Thanks to Earth Abides, and George R. Stewart, it has been a productive life. The novel has guided, through thick and thin, to some educational and literary works which, I believe, will help make this world a better place.
Where will Stewart’s great novel lead the next reader?