Since the beginning of human existence there has been a line drawn, to varying extents, separating man and nature; this phenomenon – and accompanying discussions of its relative merit – has occurred steadily in literature since man has been able to document his thoughts. For the most part this separation is based either upon man’s superior intelligence or his impressive social capacities (needs?). Upon reading George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides it seems that not one, but both of these concepts play a part in man’s elevated hierarchical stature.
Stewart recognises, not necessarily our intelligence but, our ability to create knowledge, as the central pillar of our existence; he also suggests that this ability is rendered useless, or is suppressed unless employed in a social setting. Man alone can think, man collectively can produce and store knowledge.
Upon waking up alone, and discovering the extent of his predicament, Ish’s first instinct (like so many of our post-apocalyptic heroes. Ex: 28 Days Later) is to return to the family home: social comfort zone. Upon finding the home abandoned he, despite being a self proclaimed loner, departs on a – first local then – nationwide quest to find companionship. Not, presumably, so they can play 2 player x-box games but because he understands subconsciously that his ability to think is amplified when surrounded by like-minded individuals. This distinction between like-minded individuals and ANY individuals is exemplified by his cursory attempts at socialising with a variety of “unsatisfactory” candidates; that is of course until he finds Em.
Em becomes the match to Ish’s latent flammability; as a very bright individual Ish was able to survive quite easily, upon re-discovering social stability his thoughts leap from survival to progression. Ish’s focus switches from intelligence to the creation, stockpiling and preservation of knowledge.
It is with this knowledge that he attempts to educate a growing mass of people: his new society. He does not realise, however, that this new society, by necessity, is not the same as his old one; that, therefore, his preserved (advanced) knowledge does not apply to this burgeoning community.
The book ends, somewhat hopefully, leaving the reader with the knowledge that mankind, as a whole, will survive. A community has been formed and, as such, knowledge can be formed, adapted and expanded; though they begin at a state of reduced advancement (bows and arrows etc.) their social situation will allow them to one day re-attain said state and, potentially, surpass it.
Man alone is smart and dies, man together makes knowledge and survives.