Potlatch 20: March 4 - 6, 2011

 


Book of Honor:
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

From the beginning, Potlatch has not been an ordinary science fiction convention. Rather than selecting a Guest of Honor on whom the convention was centered, Potlatch focuses on the exchange of ideas, and equally honors everyone participating in the discussion. At Potlatch 2 we thought it would be neat to have a Book of Honor to focus our discussion and give everyone a common starting point. This has become a Potlatch tradition. This year's Book of Honor is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.

Once upon a time, writers from outside the SF community made great contributions to the field. Two of the best such works appeared in 1949. Everyone knows Orwell's 1984, but few today have read -- though many have heard of -- Earth Abides. Yet it's an equally notable story that has never lost its punch. It's worthy of re-consideration as Potlatch 20's Book of Honor.

Earth Abides is one of the first, and one of the most generative, near-future post-holocaust SF novels. Disease has wiped out almost all the human population, and the focus is on the few survivors and how they carry on. Stewart was an English professor at U.C. Berkeley, and also the author of Storm and Name on the Land. These are all books about how people, geography, and technology relate to each other - in short, on human ecology. Earth Abides asks: How long can the surviving humans live in the empty shell of modern civilization before the infrastructure breaks down? Do they then form a salvage economy, or a subsistence economy, or both, and how much of each? How do other species respond to the environmental change? Above all, what is the emotional and intellectual burden on the aging human survivors as the last carriers of American culture and traditions in the time of new generations of young people who know not Babylon? It is as his hero's comfort in the face of that last question that Stewart takes his Biblical motto: "Men go and come, but Earth abides."

Stewart writes with a level of consideration of practical detail, and with a subtlety of plot and characterization, that were pretty much unknown in the magazine SF of the time. The characters are flawed but mostly decent and interesting people. It is a pioneering study of ecology, and the science still holds up well. The story is set mostly in an easily recognizable Berkeley of the 1940s, and is written with an intense sense of place and local color.

Earth Abides has been influential on later post-holocaust and ecological SF novels. Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore and Pat Murphy's The City, Not Long After, among other classics, were written in homage to, or in deliberate argument with, Stewart's work. We expect and hope you will find it an important, moving, and searingly memorable book.

There's a 2006 Del Rey trade paperback edition in print, and an audiobook version from Brilliance Audio, read by Jonathan Davis. Used copies and library holdings of a variety of editions are easy to find.

David Bratman and Tom Becker

Link to Wikipedia entry on Earth Abides

Past Potlatch Books of Honor:

Potlatch 2, 1993 : Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Potlatch 4, 1995 : The Only Neat Thing to Do by James Tiptree, Jr.

Potlatch 5, 1996 : The Lathe of Heaven (video, based on the novel by Ursula K. Le Guin)

Potlatch 7, 1998 : The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Potlatch 10, 2001 : Thunder and Roses by Theodore Sturgeon

Potlatch 12, 2003 : The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

Potlatch 13, 2004 : The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Potlatch 14, 2005 : A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Potlatch 15, 2006 : The Avram Davidson Treasury edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis

Potlatch 16, 2007 : Dimensions of Sheckley: the Selected Novels by Robert Sheckley

Potlatch 17, 2008 : Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Potlatch 18, 2009 : Always Coming Home by Ursula K. LeGuin and Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford

Potlatch 19, 2010 ; Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny