Review of The Last Man (1826)

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Mary Shelley (writer).

Read in 2021.

There is no cure for the great plague that closes the 21st century.

A novel in three volumes. The first of these is a tedious late-Georgian, Godwinian romance where the upper classes are genetically superior and the biggest sign of science fiction is that tensions between royalists, anti-royal aristocrats and parliamentarians threaten to repeat the English Civil War of the 17th century, complete with a Byronic Cromwell figure. Despite her own scandalous background and the fact that she was writing in the midst of the industrial transformation, Shelley seems completely disinterested in imagining how society might change over the next 270 years, which is unintentionally funny. Though an adaptation of the novel to comics or film—made in the actual 21st century—might use steampunk motifs, they are absent here.

Things pick up in the second volume, where the author anticipates the Greco-Turkish wars, modelled on the Greek War of Independence where Byron died. Bayonets are duly fixed, but more importantly, Shelley invents the secular apocalypse in stunning form. It is amazing how many of the tropes of later genrefied apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction are already present here, right down to the false Christian prophet of the end times who, in the third and last volume of the novel, locks up his followers in the Tuileries! They call themselves the Elect and their unnamed leader’s lieutenants are in on his tricks, like Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

For better and worse, Shelley’s capital-R Romanticism remains in force through the better volumes. At one point, the scion of the last king of England interrupts a pitched battle between two thirds of all remaining Englishmen by showing up at the last minute in “colonized” France. There is no better explanation for the people’s abortive murderousness in that episode than their mere separation from the leader while he helped round up the last third. This comes across as melodramatic and flatly unbelievable on the psychological level, but as the population continues to dwindle, the epic and lyrical displaces the dramatic. Shelley’s poetic monologues on the apocalypse are weighted down by purple prose, but more fun than Frankenstein (1818); she’s clearly gotten better at them with age:

Yet a feeling of awe, a breathless sentiment of wonder, a painful sense of the degradation of humanity, was introduced into every heart. Nature, our mother, and our friend, had turned on us a brow of menace. She shewed us plainly, that, though she permitted us to assign her laws and subdue her apparent powers, yet, if she put forth but a finger, we must quake. She could take our globe, fringed with mountains, girded by the atmosphere, containing the condition of our being, and all that man’s mind could invent or his force achieve; she could take the ball in her hand, and cast it into space, where life would be drunk up, and man and all his efforts for ever annihilated.

That’s from the halfway mark, just before the plague reaches England. Even at that stage there is very little science to the fiction. Shelley mentions smallpox vaccination and anticipates its universality, but does not pick the germ theory of disease or characterize the illness, so there is no internally consistent method of contagion—not even Galen’s miasma theory—and therefore no reason why the protagonist is, or thinks he is, the last man.

From episode to episode, Shelley sometimes suggests the Todorovian marvelous or fantastic, most clearly in a black sun arising “an hour before noon”; this is reported indirectly but is “attested by a multitude of witnesses”, so it is probably meant to be taken as true. Perhaps the illness itself should be considered fantastic, that is possibly mundane and possibly supernatural. Most often, however, the author shoots for the Todorovian uncanny, presenting a plausible mundane explanation for some appropriately surreal episodes along the way through Europe. I quite like how the survivors perform that Grand Tour. The fact that they expend so much of their last efforts on such a stereotypically upper-class activity, which would finally go out of style in the 1840s, suggests a counterweight to Godwin: Although they’re superheroes, the romantic aristocrats introduced at such tedious length in the first volume are ultimately unable to cope, like the real Byron in the real war in Greece. This tragic resolution at least is self-critical, as befits science fiction.

References here: Between Planets (1951), Dhalgren (1975).

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