Earth Abides was published at the beginning of the Cold War that pitted the Communist bloc against the capitalist world. The Soviets had demonstrated their nuclear capability, and many people began to contemplate a war that would wipe out civilization. Many writers produced fiction in which they presented their conceptions of a world in which civilization had been destroyed and a few survivors were reduced to a primitive mode of existence. Earth Abides served as a model for many succeeding imitations, which rarely measured up to the original in sincerity of purpose or quality of writing.
“What if?” plots appeal to readers both for the intellectual exercise they offer and for the mixed emotions they arouse. The imaginary scenario of Earth Abides is horrible and appealing at the same time. It would be horrible to be one of the majority who perish but perhaps interesting to be one of the survivors, with the wealth of the world at ones disposal. People would have the satisfaction of being surrounded by their extended families rather than seeing children and grandchildren dispersed by modern economic forces. Some readers of post-holocaust stories are attracted to the fantasy of ridding the world of the complexities of modern civilization and being able to build a simpler society based on cooperation and nonalienating work.
George R. Stewart achieved fame by writing two best-selling novels, Storm (1941) and Fire (1948), in which forces of nature are, in a sense, the protagonists. His ability to depict the grandeur of nature is displayed once again in Earth Abides, the first winner of the International Fantasy Award. In the grim years following World War II, all three of Stewarts novels contributed to the budding environmental revolution.
Stewart envisages his post-holocaust world as a peaceful place where there is little disease and little competition. Other writers have envisaged different post-holocaust scenarios. Walter Van Tilburn Clark’s chilling story “The Portable Phonograph” (1941), for example, depicts cave-dwelling survivors of a global war willing to murder for such treasures as a portable phonograph and a few recordings of awe-inspiring music from the lost world of civilization. Most post-holocaust fiction carries the same implicit or explicit message: Civilization is a precious thing that needs intelligence, self-restraint, vigilance, and international cooperation to survive. Once lost through war, pollution, overpopulation, scientific recklessness, or other human folly, it may never be recovered.