George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides has been named (by James Sallis, among others) one of the finest dystopian, after-the-fall novels of all time, and one of the finest American novels. Its long history of popularity — never out-of-print (thanks to Alan Ligda), for nearly 70 years — shows the influence of the work. Recently I read two books which, to me, stand alongside Earth Abides in the ability to inspire thinking about the possible end of human civilization. One, a novel, is told from the point of view of an Amish farmer. The other, a history and adventure, looks to a past collapse to speculate about how civilizations have ended just as Stewart foresaw – due to disease.
When the English Fall is David Williams’ novel about Pennsylvania’s Amish country after a massive solar storm destroys all things electrical. There’s no power to run vehicles, freezers, hospitals, lamps, washing machines, or radios and computers. The Amish are not much affected by the end of industrial civilization – at least not initially. They send their surplus food to the starving people in a nearby city, continue to farm and can, and pray for strength and deliverance. But soon the city’s population runs out of food, and begins to move toward the Amish community in often-violent raids. The Amish must face the possibility that they may have to choose between their peaceful ways, and the survival of their friends and families. Their choice is not for me to reveal here. But the book’s ending is hauntingly similar to that of Earth Abides.
The novel is written in the first person – pages from a journal found later. It feels Amish in style – gentle, reflective, spiritual, loving. While Earth Abides has a power sometimes called Old-Testament biblical and intersperses the narrative with short poetic passages that can feel like psalms, the quiet style of the journal supposedly written by a deeply religious person feels more like the quiet New Testament conversations Jesus has with followers.
Author David Williams is a Presbyterian minister who enjoys hoppy beer and dirty motorcycles – sounds like someone worth meeting. But he understands his hero, Jacob the Amishman as a man of belief, and is able to communicate Jacob’s ideas in a way that will reach all readers.
The Lost City of the Monkey God is NOT fiction. It is a journalistic report of a real expedition to discover lost cities in Honduras. But it is written by someone who is an experienced and best-selling novelist, who knows how to keep his audience involved to the point of reading into the early hours of the morning. Douglas Preston tells the story in good journalistic fashion combining the space-based perspective of LIDAR with the grungy, dangerous, slow cutting through a snake-infested jungle so dense that an expedition member could get lost within a hundred yards of the others.
Then, in an interesting finale inspired by what happened to the explorers after they left the jungle, the book becomes an ecologically-based work which in the best STEAM manner weaves together archaeology, history, pre-history and speculation to suggest a reason why these cities – and perhaps other ancient Latin American cities – were so quickly and inexplicably abandoned. Again, this is no place to spoil the book’s conclusion. Yet, like When the English Fall, it is powerfully evocative of Stewart’s great work.
In fact, it is almost as if The Lost City of the Monkey is a prequel to an ancient version of Earth Abides.
Like Earth Abides, these two books are ecological works which look at the interconnections between humans and the ecosphere. I highly recommend them to anyone influenced by George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. And to anyone who enjoys a smashing good read.