“They were sad, but not hopeless. Each thought that someone would be saved; each, with that pertinacious optimism, which to the last characterized our human nature, trusted that their beloved family would be the one preserved.”
“We have a power given us in any worst extremity, which props the else feeble mind of man, and enables us to endure the most savage tortures with a stillness of soul which in hours of happiness we could not have imagined. A calm, more dreadful in truth than the tempest, allayed the wild beatings of my heart — a calm like that of the gamester, the suicide, and the murderer, when the last die is on the point of being cast — while the poisoned cup is at the lips, — as the death-blow is about to be given.”
And as the last man gazes upon the countryside:
“Yes, this is the earth; there is no change — no ruin — no rent made in her verdurous expanse; she continues to wheel round and round, with alternate night and day, through the sky, though man is not her adorner or inhabitant.”
I always wonder just what people believed and assumed in years past, most specifically in hundreds of years past. And these quotes by Mary Shelley from The Last Man, one of the earliest science fiction novels, give me insight that there are always astute individuals in every age.
Centering around a plague that makes its deadly way to England, the few people left are torn between the calm, caring, patient leader who has brought them across the ocean in search of salvation, and the evil power-hungry charlatan who threatens eternal damnation and preaches that sickness is God’s punishment.
“It is a strange fact, but incontestible, that the philanthropist, who ardent in his desire to do good, who patient, reasonable, and gentle, yet disdains to use other argument than truth, has less influence over men’s minds, than he who, grasping and selfish, refuses not to adopt any means, nor awaken any passion, nor diffuse any falsehood, for the advancement of his cause.”
So relevant to our time! (Donald Trump running for president) I guess some things never change.
As so many people must, I enjoy reading about how cultured aristocrats, especially those of straight-laced 17th and 18th century England, may act when things go awry. And although the topic of death and plague is nothing to be pleased about, I found Mary Shelley’s stab at decorum being upended quite pleasing.
While England has been hit with an apocalyptic plague, the main character describes the current state of events:
“Families late devoted to exalting and refined pursuits, rich, blooming, and young, with diminished numbers and care-fraught hearts, huddled over a fire, grown selfish and grovelling through suffering. Without the aid of servants, it was necessary to discharge all household duties; hands unused to such labour must knead the bread, or in the absence of flour, the statesmen or perfumed courtier must undertake the butcher’s office. Poor and rich were now equal, or rather the poor were the superior, since they entered on such tasks with alacrity and experience; while ignorance, inaptitude, and habits of repose, rendered them fatiguing to the luxurious, galling to the proud, disgustful to all whose minds, bent on intellectual improvement, held it their dearest privilege to be exempt from attending to mere animal wants.”
“The plague was not in London alone, it was every where — it came on us, as Ryland had said, like a thousand packs of wolves, howling through the winter night, gaunt and fierce. When once disease was introduced into the rural districts, its effects appeared more horrible, more exigent, and more difficult to cure, than in towns. There was a companionship in suffering there, and, the neighbours keeping constant watch on each other, and inspired by the active benevolence of Adrian, succour was afforded, and the path of destruction smoothed. But in the country, among the scattered farm-houses, in lone cottages, in fields, and barns, tragedies were acted harrowing to the soul, unseen, unheard, unnoticed. Medical aid was less easily procured, food was more difficult to obtain, and human beings, unwithheld by shame, for they were unbeheld of their fellows, ventured on deeds of greater wickedness, or gave way more readily to their abject fears.”
This book is one of the very first science fiction books written, and is included in the modern post-apocalyptic genre. Written by Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, The Last Man is romantic, melancholy, and beautifully poetic.
The catch is, you have to get through the first half. It tells the origins of the main character and goes into great depth to describe his relationships with his closest friends and family members, and follows them as they rule England in the late 2000s.
There are very few “predictions” made by the author about future inventions unique to the modern era of the 21st century. People still travel by boat and carriage, although the government of England is no longer a monarchy. She writes vague things like “I had an apparatus with me for procuring light” which is a great way of acknowledging that in the future there must be a something better than a lantern but I don’t know what it is.
There really aren’t very many aspects of this book that are “science fiction-ey”. It is set in Shelley’s far future but she doesn’t much bother coming up with ideas about how people live in that time. I see it as an experiment about the “end of the world” which has always been a topic of controversy and alarm throughout the ages.
The people in The Last Man travel not just by boat but also by “sailing balloon”. About half way through the book one of the main character’s close family members die, jumping overboard from a ship (on the water) out of sorrow for her husband’s death. The main character eschews sailing by boat at that point:
He says “Its hateful splash renewed again and again to my sense the death of my sister” and tells his niece to “sit beside me in this aerial bark” as they make their way back home in a sailing balloon.
“We were lifted above the Alpine peaks, and from their deep and brawling ravines entered the plain of fair France, and after an airy journey of six days, we landed at Dieppe, furled the feathered wings, and closed the silken globe of our little pinnace.”
The feathered wings are the only thing science fiction-ey about this idea since hot air balloons were invented in the late 1700s and this book was published in 1826, but it was one time she took a liberty about an interesting invention that is common place in this future.
As you can tell, the book is written in the old way with long dramatic sentences and lots of commas, and using an extensive vocabulary. But unlike Jane Austen’s books, let’s say, death is a constant theme. The above scene occurs about half way through and death is a constant companion for the rest of the book. One by one his loved ones die, most often of the plague, and he is left as the “last man”.
Shelley was not critically acclaimed for this book and it went out of print within a few years. The apocalypse was simply not a popular topic I’m assuming, and it was certainly not a lady-like one. And from a modern point of view, the action doesn’t really start until half way through, like I said, and even then it doesn’t move along at a brisk pace like most fiction written these days.
Either way, it’s an amazing work of art and a bold experiment for Shelley’s time.