The Last Man (Oxford World's Classics)

The Last Man - Mary Shelley, Morton D. Paley Looking at my review of Shelley's Frankenstein, I noted I had written that the "flowery, melodramatic style sometimes made me roll my eyes." But I also remember by and large enjoying that book, and being impressed by the play of ideas and imagination. Enough I had wanted to read this other book by Shelley, the other one that could also be called science fiction (her other works of fiction mainly being historical fiction.) After all, Mary Shelley is often hailed as the mother of science fiction, or maybe the grandmother, with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as the proud papas. And here is this tale of the end of the world, or of humanity at least due to a pandemic, set centuries after her time (though in our current century.) I thought it suggestive that the great work of Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men, (which I have yet to read, but is considered one of the great and influential science fiction works) had a similar title. Well, this was wretched. I doubt it had much influence on later science fiction or post-apocalyptic works. Apparently the idea of "the last man" or "lastness" had been common in the decades before publication and was nothing new. The Last Man was badly received when published in 1826 and went out of print for more than a century. Sometimes even bad books are worth reading for the influence they've had on culture, literature or history. Unlike the case with Frankenstein, I doubt that's the case here. Intrinsic value? Oh dear God, I don't even know where to begin detailing the problems with this novel and how much I lament that trees died in its name. First, the very first rule of fiction is, "show, don't tell." The tell in this novel is mammoth. You know how you can tell? Flipping through pages you'll see little dialogue. In the midst of reading this I dipped into Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) to remind myself that yes, they did already know how to write novels back then and there it was when I glanced down on the page--lively, plausible, complex characterizations, witty dialogue, wise and insightful comments about human nature--well integrated into the narrative--and restrained emotion. Mary Shelley on the other hand has the most emo characters I've ever read--even by the standards of the at times overwrought Frankenstein. I never thought of Brits as a weepy people, not even in the romantic era but Good God. And the exclamation points, the capitalizations, the classical metaphors, the archaic language, the frequent quotation of poetry. Let's have a short sample: In the deepest fountain of my heart the pulses were stirred; around, above, beneath, the clinging Memory as a cloak enwrapt me. In no one moment of coming time did I feel as I had done in time gone by. The spirit of Idris hovered in the air I breathed; her eyes were ever and for ever bent on mine; her remembered smile blinded my faint gaze, and caused me to walk as one, not in eclipse, not in darkness and vacancy--but in a new and brilliant light, too novel, too dazzling for my human senses. On every leaf, on every small division of the universe (as on the hyacinth ac is engraved) was imprinted the talisman of my existence--SHE LIVES! SHE IS! That was chosen from a random page--most of it is... well worse. And though this is set over 250 years in the future, at the end of the 21st century, there is no imaginative speculation about the future on display here. There are balloons for fast travel--an invention from the century before the book was published. And Britain is a republic with an elected Lord Protector. That's it. Otherwise this is a decidedly pre-industrial setting with no discernible social differences from the time the novel was written. Never mind cars or trains, this is a world still connected by horse and sail. It might be said that it was easier for Verne and Wells writing in the midst of the Industrial Revolution to imagine voyages through time and under the sea and into space. Maybe so, but I did expect better from the author of Frankenstein. The book does have one redeeming quality that kept me somewhat interested, especially through the first third. Both the back cover of the book and the introduction reveals this is somewhat a roman-a-clef. Volume 1, the first third of the novel, is basically a domestic drama--no apocalypse in sight--but I did find there the dynamics of the characters interesting in a voyeuristic sense. Mary Shelley wasn't just the author of Frankenstein. She was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the great English Romantic Poets, and they were close to another of the great English poets--Lord Byron. Supposedly the character of Adrian is based on Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Raymond is a portrait of Lord Byron. (If true-to-life then Bryon was a prime jerk.) If you have the Oxford edition, I don't recommend reading the introduction before the main text, since it gives away the entire plot--but what it did detail of Mary Shelley's life and circle did have some fascinating parallels in the book. The few times I felt moved by the book was when I felt I could read on the page how Mary Shelley must herself have felt like the last human on the earth after the death of so many she had held dear not long before she wrote the novel. The isolation at the end of the novel and hint of hope really is well done. In fact, the last chapter was great--it just came 450 pages too late. So if you're fascinated by these literary figures, you might find (well, some of) this book of interest: otherwise, I'd leave this novel to the academics.