Sunday, August 21, 2011

Things Were So Easy Back Then

So over the last couple of weeks, I've been getting back into my sf classics reading. I pulled out my 1950's-era paperback of George Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), and then downloaded a copy of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall (1939) on my iPhone. Old text, new tech--gotta love it!

Even though about 10 years separate these two books, I couldn't help but notice some similarities. In both, a single (white, male, graduate student) protagonist is thrust into a vastly alien landscape with no warning or preparation. In Earth Abides, Ish has been doing field research alone in the California wilderness. He's bitten by a snake, and thus misses both the end of civilization and the plague that causes it. In Lest Darkness Fall, Martin falls through a crack in time into Italy at the dawn of Europe's Dark Ages.

In the first third or so of each book, the protag has some time to take stock of the situation and get his bearings. Ish realizes the enormity of what happens, and is able to travel from San Francisco to New York and back (driving) before getting settling into establishing-a-future-for-humanity mode. Within the first day of being in historical Italy, Martin is able to understand the language, get some money, food, and lodging. The next day he's secured a loan to go into business introducing more advanced products to the ancient culture (starting with distilled brandy).

Let's start with the fact that Martin doesn't keel over from an ancient disease that he's not immune to. Even though he takes great care with his hygiene, given the prevalence of air- and water-borne diseases in ancient cities, this is a lot to swallow. And I find Ish's cross-country odyssey likewise full of super-human luck. I couldn't shake the feeling that both authors were glossing over huge numbers of practical difficulties in order to tell the stories they wanted to tell.

Which are both good stories, don't get me wrong. Even though it took me awhile to warm to Stewart's style in Earth Abides, it eventually won me over, especially the periodic interludes that explained how the natural world was adapting to the absence of humans as the decades pass. Apparently Stewart wrote other books that focused on the natural world rather than the human one, and I think that's the primary strength of this classic. I was also impressed that the central human relationship of the book was interracial, even though the narrative never makes a big deal of that. That had to be incredibly progressive for the time. Lest Darkness Fall was even easier to like. Martin's interactions with the easily-caricatured Italians and Goths are really funny, and the whole thing is fast-paced thanks to the aforementioned glossing over of difficulties.

Lest Darkness ends on a more triumphal note than the more elegiac Earth Abides. Martin has clear-cut goals (introducing technological and political innovations and stabilizing an Italian-Goth kingdom so that southern Europe doesn't enter into the Dark Ages) and is 100% successful is achieving them. Ish has more nebulous goals (trying to teach the children of his community enough so that they won't have to re-invent everything once the resources of the old world finally run out), but is only moderately successful. He doesn't manage to pass on the gift of literacy, and it doesn't take more than two generations for the younger cohort to return to magical thinking about the world. However, he does manage to make sure that they know about bows and arrows and how to make fire, so that's something.

Of course, both these books are problematic from today's point of view: Lest Darkness is pretty much exactly the kind of story that uses history as an theme park that Judith Tarr talks about in this post. And Earth Abides uses a terribly inaccurate view of 'primitive' anthropology as its model for how a post-technological tribal society might evolve. However, there's no arguing how influential both these stories were: Sprague de Camp's tale helped establish the entire field of alternate history that has thrived ever since, and Stewart's post-apocalyptic tale is one of the founding models of that trope.

1 comment:

Paul Weimer said...

Hi Karen.

Have you read Poul Anderson's The MAN WHO CAME EARLY, which is sort of a reaction to Lest Darkness Fall, where an American falls back in time to 11th Century Iceland and doesn't do so well?

Oh, and I wouldn't say that everything Martin Padway tries is 100% successful...he never does crack the secrets of gunpowder, for example.