The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Imagine the scenario. Today: debut science fiction novel causes sensation and the author widely regarded as a visionary. Tomorrow: same author sets the follow up story 200 years in the future, but nothing has changed. There has been no progress in science or culture. All there is to be found is a sense of arrogance that the society of today has reached its peak and there is nowhere else to go. Welcome to The Last Man.

849585I picked up (and downloaded) my copy of the Wordsworth Classic edition of Shelley’s The Last Man – originally published in 1826 – with eager anticipation. After all, Frankenstein is one of my favourites and I’ve only recently re-read it. I also love a good apocalyptic tale. Imagine my crushing disappointment and prolonged struggle to read these 375 pages. As usual, no attention was paid to notes and the introduction (other than the author’s introduction – she says that in 1818 she discovered some prophetic writings in Sibyl’s caves, near Naples, and this book is her version of those writings) as the idea is to read each story in this challenge as it was intended to be read at the time of publication.

The cover blurb speaks of an ‘apocalyptic fantasy’ and the ‘end of human civilisation’. What we actually get is a rather dull character piece about Adrian, Raymond and Lionel (the narrator) who the cover suggests are ‘idealised portraits of Shelley and Byron’ (with Lionel therefore being Mary). However, I know little about the lives of these men, so can’t comment on their portrayal. The book is laid out in 3 volumes. The first mostly concerns itself with the comings and goings of the upper classes as the monarchy crumbles and England becomes a republic. Nothing but political and familial machinations. Bearing in mind this is set sometime after 2073…there is a war between Greece and Turkey, which is the main background to volume 2, as Lionel and Raymond head to Constantinople to fight. There is talk of reports of a plague within the city, which is around about the half way mark of the book, and the first hints of any apocalyptic writing. The characters all return to England as news reaches them that the plague has began its spread around Europe. It is now 2092. Volume 3 has only a few survivors left in England, and a decision is made to leave, in order to find a piece of land with a better climate and protection from the plague. They visit France where a fanatical religious sect believes in a messiah who will protect them from disease. This journey takes the band, which was more than 1500 on leaving England and is now just 4, to Switzerland. Soon, events lead to Lionel being the last man alive, in 2100, where the story ends. Throughout the tale, lines of poetry are thrown in for reasons unknown, which are nice on their own, but only serve to irritate within the context of the plot. Shelley showing off…

Mary Shelley’s arrogance is astounding. Despite having demonstrable knowledge in science and progress, she believes the time she lives in is the pinnacle of culture and evolution. Horse is the main form of transport and people communicate with letters. The class system puts the intellectual and moneyed elite above everyone else (a shepherd is described as ‘an unlettered savage’ early on). Nepotism and favour are rife. The British Empire still rules. Women are subservient. The richest and therefore most powerful are the last to survive. These would all be acceptable features in an alternative history novel, or a satire, when the foibles and folly of these ideologies were explored. However, what Shelley does instead is write paragraph after paragraph, page after page of descriptions; both of emotion and environment. It took more than a volume before personal procrastination ended, and the alleged point of the story (the annihilation of mankind) even begins. Which is a shame, because individual sentences were often beautifully written. There were just far too many of them, slowing the narrative to a snail’s pace.

There is no allusion to science fiction anywhere through the prose. In fact, it often feels like a biblical fantasy. War is a dominant them, alongside the plague (or pestilence). One character in particular, Evadne, suffers from starvation. And of course there is death everywhere. Four horseman anyone? Or course, plague means disease which means nature versus science. In this case, obviously, science looses out, but for me, these elements are not looked at with any depth or rigour. These elements are nothing but a bi-product of the meandering musings of someone talking about characters and the time they live in, rather than any true speculation on where the future lies. The only scientist mentioned, astronomer Merrival, is a bit-player at best. The Last Man is not science fiction, despite being the first apocalyptic novel set in the future. There is nothing that happens in the novel that could have prevented it from being set in 1826.

One thing in particular rankled me. Ok, it is the future and Shelley has not advanced technology at all. Populations across Europe are known to die. But here’s the thing. There is – because there can’t be (letters, remember) – any communication on a global scale. There is no indication throughout that the plague is affecting anywhere except Europe. At best, Lionel is The Last Man in Europe, but even that is not clear. There is no word from Spain, or Scandinavia for example. If Shelley had advanced communications technology so global communication was possible, and Lionel knew he was the last man, that would have been a far more chilling climax.

I would have also preferred more of the story to focus on the plague and the survival (or not) of the human species. It almost reads like Shelley decided to write about her friends and then half way through realised she was just rambling and decided to throw in a deux ex machina in order to find a conclusion in the narrative. There is too much coincidence and happenstance in the plot to make the story either enjoyable or engaging. In one passage, Shelley even suggests the reader would tire of the description of the journey from Paris to Geneva (p319). No! It would be more interesting than anything that came before it. That is why I was interested in reading an apocalyptic story in the first place. The story of the how the 1,500 ‘souls’ became just 4 would have been a better book. It is only in the last 20 pages, Lionel (Shelley herself?) is the last man. Which is not what I expected at all. Shame.

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