George R. Stewart’s Prophetic Whole Earth Vision, and a Canadian Coin



In a recent issue of the excellent CBC New website,  journalist Bob MacDonald describes a new Canadian coin that honors the 25th anniversary of the first spaceflight by a female Canadian Scientist-Astronaut, Dr. Roberta Bondar.  The coin, beautifully-designed, has two remarkable features. Concave on one side and convex on the other, it carries a sense of the roundness of Earth.  And its colorful rendering of the image-map of Canada from space glows in the dark to reveal patterns of man-made lights in that northern country.  (The Canadians were also kind enough to include a good part of their neighboring nation to the south on the coin.)

Since this is a silver coin, durably made, it will be a long-lasting — “a deep time” — reminder of North American geography as it appeared the early 21st century.

In his article, MacDonald emphasizes what he seems to consider a new idea – that space and conservation are two sides of the same coin.  The article is well-written, and will open up that idea for the first time to many readers.  But the idea is NOT new – NASA is tasked, to do ecological research.  And that, in part, is certainly because George R.Stewart, nearly a quarter of a century before the NASA organic act was written, and 33 years before the first Earth Day,  in Ordeal By Hunger and his ecological novels, presented the concept to a massive audience of literate, general readers.

Ordeal By Hunger, written in 1936,  opens with a view of Nevada from orbit so accurately described that when  International Space Station Astronaut Dr. Ed Lu  photographed Nevada from space his images matched Stewart’s words almost exactly.  Stewart’s history of the Donner Party then comes down to Earth, to focus on the role of the ecosystem in the fate of the emigrants.  Thus, he completes what has become known as The Whole Earth vision – understanding Earth from within its ecosystem, and  from without,  as one small, beautiful, place in the universe.

Stewart follows that same approach in his first ecological novel, Storm.  The novel begins with a view of Earth from Earth orbit; moves into the ecosystem to tell its story; then ends by  taking the reader to an imaginary platform on Venus, describing the tiny bright light called Earth from millions of miles away.

Once again George R. Stewart proved to be a prophet, and trailblazer for our time.  His books helped lay the foundation for the view of Earth found on the new Canadian coin, and for our sense of the Whole Earth.

George R. Stewart, Predictor of 7-20-1969

George R. Stewart opened Ordeal By Hunger, in 1936, with a look at northern Nevada from a 200 mile high orbit – and described the scene so perfectly that when Astronaut Ed Lu, of ISS Expedition Seven, photographed it,  Stewart’s words and Lu’s photos matched precisely. In Storm, Stewart ended the book with a view from Venus, in which his imagined watcher from that world saw no sign of storms disturbing our world. In both these books, Stewart – perhaps not realizing it, or perhaps realizing it, was preparing for that great event that took place 47 years ago today:  the First Step on another world.

Working for NASA, and working with Star Trek artists,  I’ve been honored with some exceptional gifts that memorialize that great day.  I’ll celebrate by contemplating a wonderful gift given by Mike Okuda and another gift from NASA education days.



Saturn 5 by Mike Okuda



Space flown Apollo 25th Anniversary flag, courtesy NASA. (Signatures collected later.)

Take a moment, if you will, to honor those heroes, and all those who supported them, and the artists who inspire us to follow that dream.  Artists like Mike Okuda, Rick Sternbach, Doug Drexler,  Chesley Bonestell, David Hardy, and so many others, who fire our imaginations to design and build ships to explore other worlds.  And literary artists like George R. Stewart, who prepared us wonderfully for that First Step.

By the way, NASA has restored the entire 3+hours that Armstrong and Aldrin spent on the moon on Apollo Day I.   You can see it or download it here:

A New George R. Stewart e-Plaque at the Berkeley Plaque Project




The Berkeley Historical Plaque Project is dedicated to placing plaques at, or about, historic sites in Berkeley.  Many of the plaques are physical, beautifully designed and placed at the locations interpreted.  Others are posted at the Plaque Project’s website, as e-Plaques.  The e-plaques allow people not in Berkeley to see the plaques, and learn about those being interpreted – a world wide version of the physical plaques, available to all.  The e-Plaques also allow an honoring of sites and people for far less than the $1000 cost of the physical plaques.

George R. Stewart has now been honored with an ePlaque.  With the permission of GRS Family Photo Collection Keeper Anna Evenson, the writing talents of Steven Finacom and company, and the leadership of Robert Kehlman, the plaque is now online at the link above. The Plaque gives a good overview of Stewart, his family, his life, and his work. It links to other honorings like the brilliant James Sallis essay on Earth Abides.  (Sallis is a poet and author, the writer of the novella DRIVE which was made into an excellent movie.)

The Plaque also links to a radio script, written by Stewart’s colleague, Berkeley author “Anthony Boucher.” “Boucher,”  nom de plume of William Anthony Parker White, created a series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, which ran in the late 1940s.  One episode, The Ghost Town Mortuary, “starred” George R. Stewart. Follow the link at the bottom of the plaque to read part of that script.   (Some of the Gregory Hood episodes are online; unfortunately, The Ghost Town Mortuary is not.)

Eventually, it may be possible to put a physical plaque on what might be called “Ish’s House,”  the house on “San Lupo Drive” which was the Stewart home when Earth Abides was written, and Ish’s home in the novel. But that will need to wait until the time when there is funding available for it.  Until then – and after – this is a fine piece of work, to be enjoyed by people in many places around the globe – and beyond, if someone on the International Space Station is a Stewart fan.

George R. Stewart, Space Explorer

Say what?  GRS a space explorer, decades before we had humans in space?  How so?

In Ordeal By Hunger and Storm, Stewart writes the view from space into the work.  The Ordeal By Hunger entry is especially interesting.  He describes the view of northern Nevada along the California Trail so precisely that in the NASA days when I asked Astronaut Dr. Ed Lu to photograph it on ISS Expedition 7, and had the passage sent to him, the photos that came back showed how accurately Stewart had visualized the space explorer’s view – 25 years before any human actually saw it for themselves.


Storm begins and ends with a view of Earth from space – the opening passages, like those in Ordeal By Hunger, give a view from near space.  The closing passages move farther out, into the solar system, where he gives the view from Venus.

Interestingly, he changed the space-perspective section in Ordeal By Hunger for the second edition; but once humans had gone into space, he put the original back.

He was a pioneer in the Whole Earth Perspective, including the close view from within the ecosystem here on Earth, and the overview, the Astronaut’s View, from Low Earth Orbit.  So it seemed to make sense to use him as a model for a new way to interpret the Earth and educate others about it. When the opportunity came to present a teacher’s workshop at a Mars Conference, in 1998,  I used that theme.   Accidentally, today, I came upon that workshop paper in researching another talk.  The paper lists all the resources for space education, many now gone, available to teachers in 1998.  GRS wanders into the paper on page 8.

Here’s the paper,  for your edification and amusement.


Down the Home Stretch

We’re near the end of our discussions of the books George R. Stewart wrote.  At the end of his life, when I met him, he was working on the last one – American Given Names.  In the same short period, near the end of his life,  Stewart wrote two other names books:  Names On the Globe, and American Given Names.

He also wrote a manuscript that was never published.  Since that particular work, which is controversial, speaks to some of the same issues as The Year of the Oath,  subject of the last post about the courage of author James Sallis.  So this is a good place to discuss Stewart’s unpublished work.

The Shakespeare Crisis is an unpublished novel which takes us back to the same fictional university and many of the same characters as Stewart’s 1939 novel Doctor’s Oral. It is clearly inspired by events on the Berkeley campus in the post-Free Speech Movement era, when movements which had great campus support – if not government and university support – were joined by other movements which were often vicious, and counter to freedom and democracy.  Stewart had been a quiet supporter of some parts of the earlier movements; but he, like many of his colleagues, was appalled at the later movements, with their damaging of buildings, disruption of classes, non-negotiable demands for huge university programs with no accountability, and the like.  The novel is his answer to the gangs wandering the classrooms, breaking windows, and shouting disruptively. His villains are clearly modeled on the real villains – from across the spectrum – in the real movements.

The novel tells the story of two professors who get into a debate over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.  A young feminist journalist decides to hype the disagreement into an academic war in order to pad her resume.  As she scales up the argument a seller of theses, who is also an entrepreneur of chaos, sees it as an opportunity.  He gathers his regular protesters for a meeting and encourages them to make this a major war over books and learning.  As things escalate, the “journalist” makes sure that the entire world knows about it, the protesters disrupt the university, and the regents act abominably.  The climax is an assault on the Library by the protesters, who plan to burn its books.  And in one the great concept scenes in literature, the Librarians fight them off with the tools of their trade – staplers, books presses, and the like.  But one of the professors, depressed by it all, takes his life.  The campus holds a meeting.

A Professor Emeritus,obviously Stewart, rises to speak.

“In those eighty years that I remember, the world has not moved … in a way that
I, as an old man, now find wholly agreeable. The trust in reason, and the sway of
the intellect, seem to have weakened….

Like an old-fashioned preacher, I now present an anecdote that might be
called an emblem. When I took my modest walk, as I do twice daily on the campus,
I saw recently a word, POWER, illegally sprayed on a wall. Then, a day or
two later, it had been partially scrubbed away, and reduced to POW, the traditional
word having been transformed into a kind of semi-word, as if in replica of
our times, moving from reason to un-reason…. Then, this morning—again
walking—I saw it still further reduced to OW, a mere instinctual cry of human
confusion or distress, animal-like, lacking in what we once called reason. So have
my times gone!…

There was a famous saying … in my day … “The lamps are going out all over

Yet one of them never went out, though it flickered at times. And that was the
lamp of learning, which we sometimes envisage as a torch…. And always—or, at
least, in our times—the universities.”

In our time, as universities are assaulted with politically correct thought, hiring and promotion by standards other than academic, and repeated accusations of misbehavior which, with no hearings except in the press – in the manner of that feminist reporter in the novel – one might think that the universities have seen their lights dim and feel that Stewart, like that old professor, was right.

But, after all, Stewart’s manuscript is fiction, isn’t it?

Stewart felt so strongly about the issue that when the Librarians are assaulted one of them uses a profane phrase that is beyond the pale of Stewart’s usual dignified writing.  It’s almost as if one of those protesters had written that paragraph.  The word would never have appeared in a published novel – Ted (Theodosia) Stewart would never have permitted it.

But there was no need to censor a publication.  The book was not published.  Ted almost burned it, and only allowed it to go to the Stewart Papers after long and persuasive arguments by family and university colleagues.  She felt that the novel, with its condemnations of protest movements, sounded like a conservative rant.  And she, like her husband, were dedicated liberals.  (Ted was so progressive in her political views that she voted for Socialist Norman Thomas every time he ran for President.)  Ted and others also felt that it was not a worthy example of Stewart’s brilliant style.  He had bitten off more than he could chew in years when he was aging.  He was also angry, so the characters are cardboard and the novel reads more like a polemic than a work of tragedy or comedy.

The Shakespeare Crisis is now  only to be found  in the Stewart Papers.  I’ve read it, and it helped me write by biography of Stewart.  If you have the desire and wherewithal to travel to Berkeley and the days to read the manuscript in the Library, you may judge it for yourself.  But I would certainly not judge George R. Stewart by that book – it is far below the quality or the power or the importance of his great works like Storm or Earth Abides or Names On The Land.  Consider it an experiment, like his other books that weren’t published (at least three never saw the light of day).

The next posts will return to Stewart’s published works; to his final books, on names.

Buying a Beer For Cosmonaut Sali

George R. Stewart, as he often does for his readers, took me places I had only dreamed of when I was a lad.  Stewart’s emphasis on Earth and its ecosystems encouraged me to become a ranger; and I did that for both one state park system and the National Park Service.  Stewart’s Whole Earth vision, describing Earth from space in Ordeal By Hunger, Storm, and Earth Abides, encouraged me to seek work with NASA.  Fortunately – thanks to Mary Valleau of NASA who had also worked for the NPS, and her boss Garth Hull – I was hired as a NASA “Aerospace Education Specialist” – a traveling field educator who helped teachers, students, and communities learn about STEAM – the social and natural science, technology, engineering, art, and math required for spaceflight.  I worked at AESP for nearly ten years, first as State Representative for Southern California and Arizona; then as SR for Nevada and Montana.  (I have a Secondary Credential, BA and MA, and worked as a teacher on secondary and college levels.)

There’s a book in that work.

It was wonderful to work with students and teachers.  And working with astronauts and scientists to help develop educational material to teach about their missions was a milestone of my teaching career.  There were many adventures – one thing we did was to go to Johnson Space Center to learn about upcoming missions, which included going through some small sample of astronaut training.  So I practiced docking the shuttle to MIR station; and road along on the high-fidelity shuttle lift-off, abort, and landing simulator.  That was an E ticket ride.  I also met many of the Astronauts, including Barbara Morgan who was the first Mission Specialist with a teaching background. Barbara opened the door to space for teachers; several others have since gone up, full astronauts; two were  spacewalkers.  (Later members of the program would be known as Educator Astronauts)

But one of the most memorable encounters happened in the summer of 1997 at a bar near Johnson Space Center.  The 40 or so of us in the program were at the Center to be educated about the upcoming International Space Station construction and missions.  There were many briefings by Astronauts and astronaut crews who were to be involved.  William “Shep” Shepard, who was to be Commander of Expedition I – the first manning of the ISS – spoke at JSC; then invited those of us who were interested to meet him at the legendary Outpost, an Astronaut and scientist watering hole for 30 years. (You’ve seen the place if you’ve seen Space Cowboys.)

Only a few of us went.  I sat next to a very quiet man, who I didn’t know, and who had come there with Shep Shepard. I asked him how he knew Shepard.  “I’m Sali,” he said, “The first Uzbekistani Cosmonaut.  I go up on the Shuttle in January.”  After I got over the surprise, I decided to try out some high school Russian on him.  But he insisted on English:  “Shep said if I want to learn English I should go to a bar.”

“Well, then – can I buy you a beer?”


And so I did.

The rest of the evening we listened to Shepard, a former Navy Seal, explain why we will not get to Mars without the Russians.  “I used to fight these guys,” he said, “but when it comes to long-duration space exploration they’ve written the book.  We need to work with them.”  We went back to our hotel, they went back to the Astronaut quarters.  I’d like to think that evening, and that beer, put a small stone in the cathedral of mankind.

Later that summer, I had the chance to work with high school students from the former Soviet Union.  One of the girls was from Uzbekistan.  “Sure.  Sali.”  “You know Sali?” she asked, in a wondering voice.  “Bought him a beer.”  My stock went very high; hers went higher with her companions.

Sali went up the next January; then went again, to spend nearly six months on the International Space Station. Click on the photo for more information:

220px-SharipovSalizhan Shakirovich Sharipov Салижан Шакирович Шарипов

All that from doors George R. Stewart opened.

I sometimes think of Sali, and his space explorer colleagues, looking out at Earth from orbit, and seeing the state of Nevada from space looking just like GRS described in Ordeal By Hunger – long before anyone had seen or photographed it. In fact, I was later to send up that passage, and ask Astronaut Ed Lu to photograph it from space – a way of honoring my old mentor GRS.

The Outpost, in a way, also reflected GRS’s work.  In East of the Giants and Earth Abides, fires sweep through to provide closure to the tale.  And thus it was with the Outpost:  In 2010, after a landlord threatened the long-time owners, a mysterious fire burned it to the ground.  Like Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club at Edwards Air Force Base, the mythical Judith Godoy’s ranch, and the post-apocalyptic University of California at Berkeley, the Outpost passed into legend.  But it had done its job well.  Certainly it did so, on the night that, inspired by George R. Stewart, I bought Cosmonaut Sali a beer.