George R. Stewart was quite a prophet.
In his first great work, Ordeal By Hunger, he told the story from an ecological (or Ranger’s) point of view. But he began with the Astronaut’s point of view from Low Earth Orbit. Not bad for a book published in 1936. (It’s still the best book about the Donner Party).
As he prepared for the publication of his ecological novel, Fire, he sent a letter to the Book-of-the-Month club publicist that prophetically explained:
“I consider the main theme … to be the problem of the relationship of man to his environment. I really think of myself, in most of my books, as what might be called an ecologist. ” (From a letter in the Bancroft Library’s George Rippey Stewart Papers. Published with permission of the family.)
In the Third Book of The Years of the City, Stewart pretty well predicted how societies fade away, in a novel that has disturbing parallels for today.
And in his classic work, Earth Abides, he predicted the end of the Anthropocene – the human era – through a disease that spreads rapidly throughout society, decimating most of the human race.
His interest in the idea came from his own experience. After graduation from Princeton University in the Class of 1917 (one of his classmates was F. Scott Fitzgerald), Stewart, like many of his classmates wrapped in patriotic passion by the US’s entry into WW I, enlisted. Like other army soldiers – young healthy men expected to be the most resistant to disease – he contracted the Spanish Flu. It nearly killed him; and it would interfere with his health for decades – eventually leading him to have one lung removed.
The flu infected ONE THIRD of the human population of the Earth. It may have killed as many as 50,000,000 people. And, like other recent epidemics, it became deadly when some component of a virus jumped from animal populations into a strain of human flu. This is exactly what caused the launch of coronavirus – almost certainly from a live animal market in China.
(An excellent article about the Spanish Flu epidemic, In Flew Enza, focuses on the effects at UC Berkeley — discussing Stewart’s experience, and Earth Abides.)
If this already frightening disease, coronavirus should mutate, Stewart’s prophesy could well become (at least partially) true. There are still isolated human populations – as many as 100 tribes, the Sentinelese being the best known – which might avoid the disaster. But even those could be at risk from something as simple as the washing ashore of a corpse of a victim of the disease.
Another risk? The people who avoid vaccination or who practice very unsafe sex, and put everyone else in danger. This is an especially dangerous situation when national leaders and media encourage such dubious and dangerous practices.
Will this be the Earth Abides virus? Hopefully not. At least Stewart helped prepare us with his novel. The book is so widely-read and in so many languages that certainly many of those who are in the leading roles to battle this epidemic have likely read it, and have thus been thinking for decades about what to do if and when such an epidemic should happen. It has in fact been impressive to see how quickly they have begun to respond to it. So we shall wish them well and hope for the best.
In the meantime, you may want to re-read Earth Abides.