The Last Man is the story of Lionel Verney, told by himself, the last man alive on earth after a rapacious plague accompanies sudden, ill-fated climate change and interminable armed conflicts at the end of the 21st century.
No, I am not talking about Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy, nor Paolo Bacigalupi’s Wind Up Girl or even old-school books like Ballard’s Drowned World or Matheson’s The Omega Man. Those spring chickens are just derivative, it turns out. In The Last Man, in 1826, Mary Shelley’s novel of the waterless flood of plague blasts the contours through the imaginative plains by which modern apocalyptic fiction so easily traverses today.
Most know Mary Shelley as the author of the inimitable Frankenstein (1818), that foundational sci-fi novel of the monstrous Frankenstein and the piteous wretch he creates by arrogantly and selfishly flouting the laws of Nature. If your picture of the creature is large, green, and neck-bolt sporting, blame a century of adaptation and continued fascination with humanity’s new-found technological potential for playing god; but then do yourself a favor and go read Shelley’s masterpiece meditation on life, the universe, and everything. If you haven’t read Frankenstein, I cannot recommend it more highly. I remember reading it for the first time in Christine Wooley’s ENG 304 class, and have fondly revisited this rich text every year since graduating SMCM. But that’s Frankenstein, and I am writing this review of Shelley’s The Last Man.
The Last Man is narrated from the year 2100, detailing the events from 2092 onwards when a virulent plague accompanies uncanny changes in Earth’s typical climate to annihilate humanity. Looking forward from 1826, Shelley foretells the decolonization of England’s imperial ambitions, air travel, the flash-light, and the end of monarchy’s supreme hold on English politics. This is not to say Shelley plays at Sibyl, even though that’s how her author’s note frames her chilling tale. She is flat out, hilariously wrong about a number of things that seemed immutable in 1826 but fanciful in 2014. The Ottoman Empire is strong in her future, for example, the USA still has a uncolonized frontier, and people still ride horses to and fro and boast of motorized steam engines which make freighters reach “8 knots, at least!” traveling across quiet waters. But its remarkable to see how inventive and at times transgressive Shelley’s style and content are throughout the 340 page novel.
Episodic, and at times rapturously romantic in its florid depictions, The Last Man tends to drag at times and seem in want of an editor. But the depiction of Earth’s slow, tortured desolation is haunting despite its digressive and at times anachronistic flavor. One of the first science fiction novels, and certainly the first “cli-fi” novel, The Last Man is a fascinating, and bone-chilling, summer read.
Availability: USMAI and SMCM Library
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall
Rating: Recommended; This novel’s sick!