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Earth Abides
      The Purple Cloud
George R. Stewart
      M.P. Shiel
Orion Millennium, 312 pages
      Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 304 pages

Earth Abides The Purple Cloud
George R. Stewart
George Rippey Stewart (1895-1980) earned an M.A. from Berkeley in 1920 for his [Robert Louis] Stevenson in California: A Critical Study, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1922 for his Modern Metrical Technique as Illustrated by Ballad Meter (1700-1920). He then returned to Berkeley where he joined the English Department as a professor of English. He compiled a bibliography and commentaries on Bret Harte's works, and wrote books on English composition, American given name and place name origins, early American roadways, and popular history. His 1936 Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party remains the definitive book on the ill-fated Donner Party. Similarly, his minute by minute recreation of the final attack at Gettysburg, Pickett's Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 (1959), remains a classic. In terms of science fiction he is remembered for his novel Earth Abides (1949) winner of the first International Fantasy Award (1951) and acknowledged by Stephen King as the inspiration for his The Stand. Stewart's novels Storm and Fire, also published in the late 1940s, have an element of fantasy as they personify their titled physical events.

ISFDB Bibliography
Review: Earth Abides
Review: Earth Abides in French
Review: Earth Abides
Review: Earth Abides
Biography in German

M.P. Shiel
Matthew Phipps Shiel (1865-1947), was born July 21, 1865, in Montserrat, West Indies. His father, a ship-owner, shopkeeper, and lay Methodist preacher had laid claim to the small rocky Leeward island of Redonda, of which his son was crowned king on his 15th birthday. Beginning to write at 11, Shiel was educated in Barbados, then London, England. Shiel spoke seven languages and served as an interpreter before trying his hand at medicine and teaching mathematics. Shiel was an active man, jogging six miles a day into his 70s and practicing mountaineering and yoga. Married twice, Shiel was "an eager womanizer" fathering several illegitimate children. Impressed at an early age by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and given his knowledge of many languages, Shiel's poetic prose was idiosyncratically unique, being compared by some to improvisational jazz, by others to stylistic sound effects. Shiel has been accused by some of anti-Semitism, but others refute these charges. Particularly towards the end of his life Shiel adopted an anti-Christian atheism based on scientific knowledge over hope ("ignorance"). During his life Shiel wrote 25 novels and numerous short-stories, the best of which he produced between 1895 and 1905. These include Prince Zaleski (1895), Shapes of Fire (1896), Cold Steel (1899), Contraband of War (1899), The Purple Cloud (1901) and Lord of the Sea. Shiel died on February 17, 1947, at a hospital in Chichester.

ISFDB Bibliography
Review: The Purple Cloud in French
Kingdom of Redonda-1
Kingdom of Redonda-2
Bison Books

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Classics of science fiction, M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901) and George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949) are both post-holocaust novels in which a single man survives. Beyond being rousing adventures, and having almost opposite approaches to the human nature of their last man, they explore the role of personal integrity and of knowledge in the development (or in this case maintenance) of humanity. Shiel's view of the individual is more one centred on the concept of the all-controlling, all-conquering Übermensch (Nietzschean superman), whereas Stewart's hero is the last member of a dying breed, one who is very uneasy about the absolute power his deification by other survivors has brought him. Shiel's hero seeks to bury humanity and its past, but ultimately will reseed it. Stewart's hero seeks desperately to save humanity's past, but will ultimately only be able to provide the survivors the tools for bare survival.

In Shiel's novel, a man travelling in the Arctic survives a world-encompassing purple cyanide cloud. Upon his return to civilization he realizes that he is the sole survivor, and with no society to restrict him he becomes an all-powerful insanely destructive juggernaut, revelling in his deliberate razing of entire empty cities with explosives. In his saner moments, his travels take him to Istanbul, where he discovers a young female survivor. Questioning if humanity, perpetrator of the most awful crimes against its members, should indeed be resurrected, the man leaves her. When another holocaust threatens, he is shocked into returning to her.

Unlike the over-the-top and ultimately almost humorous evil of a Dr. FuManchu, what has always drawn me to Shiel's works has been his ability, above all others, to realistically create loathsomely amoral anti-heroes. Shiel's survivor makes Richard Hatch of Survivor fame look like a pious choir-boy. The survivor in The Purple Cloud begins by saving himself at the expense of others, then proceeds to destroy for the pure pleasure of it -- not a character one can really sympathize with. What is ultimately so frightening about Shiel's amoral characters is that one can, as righteous as one might like to think oneself, easily envision oneself becoming like them when put in a similar situation. Stewart's hero on the other hand, while not a perfect and unrealistic personification of good, is what one would hope one had the guts and morality to become.

In Stewart's novel, Isherwood Williams, spending some time at his mountain cabin, survives a lethal plague. Returning with little else than an old hammer, he returns to find America depopulated. Settling with a few other survivors, and now nicknamed Ish, he seeks to re-establish American civilization through a small community living in the Berkeley Hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. While most of the survivors seek only to survive on a day to day basis, Ish tries to preserve the knowledge of the past, saving libraries, teaching his gifted but physically weak son all the knowledge and achievements of his civilization. As time passes, Ish becomes an almost God-like figure, the "Last American" to the new generation of young men and women, his old hammer being the symbol of his power. But Ish is very uncomfortable with his virtual deification and his near absolute power over the community, realizing that the survivors have become much too complacent and dependent upon him. When his son dies and the crumbling infrastructure can no longer support his people, Ish realizes that his dreams of resurrecting the civilization he once knew must be abandoned and the people taught basic practical survival skills, like making bows and arrows.

What makes Earth Abides vault far above just an excellent science fiction novel is its cross-over with the actual history of California, and the issues of humanity it raises. In 1911, an emaciated man who spoke an unknown language wandered out of the mountains of Northern California and was jailed as a vagrant. "Discovered" by Dr. Alfred Louis Kroeber (Ursula K. Le Guin's father) and his associates in the anthropology department of The University of California at Berkeley, this wilderness man was identified as the last survivor of the white man's slaughter of his Californian Native American tribe, the Yahi, and probably the last entirely free-living Indian in North America. His early life and remaining years of life under study at Berkeley were chronicled by Dr. Kroeber's wife Theodora in her classic documentary work Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America and the "novelization" Ishi: Last of his Tribe. Stewart, who did his M.A. (1920) and later returned (1922) to teach English at Berkeley, would certainly have known of Kroeber's work and of Ishi (Ishi meaning simply "a man"). Like Ishi, Ish emerges from the mountains to a new and incomprehensibly different world, the one going from the stone age to the modern industrialized age, the other doing the converse. Both have difficulty adapting at first, but both manage to come to live with their new circumstances and being the centre of attention. Like Ishi, Ish is called "the last American" by those around him, and like Ishi he teaches those around him the art of bow and arrow making. This parallelism to Ishi's story reinforces the already stunning symbolism and deep investigation of human integrity that is portrayed in Earth Abides.

Having so praised Stewart's Earth Abides it might seem that in my opinion it far surpasses Shiel's The Purple Cloud in subtlety and meaningfulness, but really this isn't the case. Stewart's work is idealistic, Shiel's perhaps too shockingly realistic. One doesn't wish to admit that much of humanity is at heart selfish and only restrained from being a force of chaos and destruction by a thin veneer of civilization. Earth Abides pats us on the back and makes us feel good about ourselves; The Purple Cloud tells it like it is.

Copyright © 2000 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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