The first hour of the new Will Smith movie I Am Legend offers a fascinating glimpse into post-civilization Manhattan. Not post-apocalyptic, like so many movies since Escape From New York, but post-civilization. Because the film's premise is that everyone was killed by a mutant AIDS vaccine, this plague left the buildings standing. Instead of clichéd piles of rubble, we are treated to skyscrapers slowly succumbing to resurgent nature. Deer graze in midtown, and trees start to grow in pavement cracks, slowly undermining a city everyone thought would last forever.
I Am Legend's source material is Richard Matheson's 1954 novel (the fourth movie to be made from the book). But there is an earlier work that not only undoubtedly inspired Matheson but also Alan Weisman, the author of the luminous new nonfiction book The World Without Us. Weisman's book is the best kind of popular science; its descriptions of the natural world gradually asserting dominance over our urban edifices (again, New York is the test case) are based on deep research.
When I interviewed Weisman, he told me his inspiration was not I Am Legend but Earth Abides, the 1949 science-fiction novel by Berkeley English professor George R. Stewart. Curious, I sought out a yellowing copy and found myself enthralled. Earth Abides is by far the best SF I've ever encountered, and also based on solid science. A virus leaves all but a very few people dead, and the survivors cope not only with a disintegrating infrastructure (in this case San Francisco) but with successive generations of post-disaster births, also the loss of humanity's entire history and moral compass. There are no little green men, or silly zombies (like those that ruin the latter parts of I Am Legend). There is only us, coping with dead utilities, collapsing bridges and flooded subways.
Since this is a transportation column, it's fascinating to watch as colony leader and humanist technocrat Isherwood Williams (whose nickname, "Ish," recalls Ishi, the last wild Indian found in California) copes with the gradual loss of planes, trains and automobiles--sidelined by dead batteries, overgrown roads, a shortage of pilots and the passage of time. A scene in which a Jeep (showroom fresh but 20 years old) is resurrected is among the most stirring of the book.
Mostly, though, the survivors revert to earlier forms, horses and carts, a relationship of millennia (compared to our brief, 100-year flirtation with internal combustion). People start living very "local" lives, which exactly what James Howard Kunstler (The Long Emergency) sees in our future as a result of the twin whammies of global warming and peak oil.
Air pollution and traffic congestion are things of the past. The new world these new men and women build is in many ways superior to our own. Earth Abides is not a downer, despite its evocation of massive human dieoff. I know it's been said before, but this book is a tribute to the human spirit. Come to think of it, Will Smith would make a splendid "Ish."
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