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Review: "The Last Man" by Mary Shelley

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I recall seeing a "Twilight Zone" episode close to fifty years ago, about a man who really wanted to be alone. He got his wish when a nuclear war wiped out everyone else. He was quite happy at this state of affairs, migrating to the New York library to spend the rest of his life reading all the books. Unfortunately, he tripped on the steps and broke his thick reading glasses. So much for solitary bliss.

Being the last man on earth is once again a hot topic with the 2012 apocalypse movies coming out seemingly once a week. An apparently hideous movie based on Shelley's The Last Man was released in 2008. The movie updates the setting of The Last Man to take into consideration the technology advances of the past two centuries plus the seventy-odd years that will take place before the novel's action begins. Looking at the trailer, however, it appears that technological accuracy is the only improvement made to Shelley's novel.

Reading Mary Shelley's The Last Man will, if nothing else, send you running to your history books to find out, among other things, when Napoleon waged his wars for world domination (the battle of Waterloo took place in 1815--eleven years before The Last Man was published), when English Monarchs became more of a figurehead than a ruler (1867), and when Jules Verne first wrote about traveling in a balloon (Five Weeks in a Balloon in 1863, Around the World in Eighty Days in 1872), and what type of plague would kill a person before the sun goes down on his first sick day.

As in Frankenstein Mary Shelley shows herself as a sci-fi pioneer and visionary with enough political savvy to know that the strife between Christian and Muslim would not be resolved even two hundred years into the future. She also envisioned that in this distant future, we would not be safe from disastrous epidemics, although she did not suggest that germ warfare (rather than a natural spread of disease) might be the culprit. Her visions of balloon travel as a means of rapid transit predates Jules Verne by forty years, which helps us forgive the fact that in her story ground transport, even for kings, consisted of horseback or carriage.

The Last Man was published about four years after the death of Mary's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley drowned when his boat sank, a boat that Mary claims was not seaworthy, although a sudden squall might have caused the boat to capsize. Her husband's death in 1822 happened the same year that a miscarriage nearly took her own life and only two years after her half sister and Percy's ex-wife both committed suicide. One can see why Shelley's world-view might have been depressing, and The Last Man reflects this.

The story begins with a visit to a cave in which an unidentified narrator visits Naples in 1818, finding a manuscript in an inaccessible cave. The manuscript appears to be from the future, from the year 2079, and is written by one Lionel Verney, a close friend of the English king and Brother-in-Law to the greatest General since Napoleon. Verney will become the last man to inhabit the earth.

We follow Verney's manuscript from his early roots as a poverty-stricken orphan to his friendship with the heir-apparent to the throne of England and to a military campaign with his Brother-in-Law into plague-stricken Turkey, a campaign which touches off the worldwide plague that wipes out the human population of the Earth.

As much as I like and admire The Last Man as a visionary work, I also found a lot to dislike. I have read several books about real and fictional plagues, and have come to expect that one would at least see a description of what a plague victim experiences when in the throes of the disease. Shelley describes very little beyond a fever and a quick death. I would imagine that she was vaguely describing Pneumonic Plague, a mutation of Bubonic Plague that takes the pathogen airborne and which can kill in a matter of hours.

I also disliked Shelley's annoying habit of describing the outcome before she describes the action. I spent a lot of reading time backtracking because I was certain I missed something, since I seemed to have found out what was going to happen before I was supposed to. Our protagonist beset with grief, but I couldn't figure out why. As I read on, I discovered the reason for the grief, but since I already knew something bad was going to happen, the reading was more depressing than suspenseful.

On the up side, Mary Shelley's gifted use of the English language was perhaps better in this work than in Frankenstein. Also to her credit, Shelley, perhaps because of her many tragic experiences, quite accurately captures and expresses the angst of mourning. The Last Man was not Frankenstein, but if you have the patience to read it, you will find its mysterious makeup rather interesting.


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