Tag Archives: old science fiction

Beautiful quotes from The Last Man

The Last Man by Mary ShelleyThe Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

As the last of the human race suffer:

“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.”

And later,

“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.”

Mary Shelley’s false messiah in The Last Man

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

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.

 

“Poor and rich were now equal…”

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

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:

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826“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.”

More from this book in the last couple of posts.

“The plague was not in London alone…”

Except from The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826“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.”

The Last Man by Mary Shelley

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, published in 1826This 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”.

Mary Shelley's portrait by Richard Rothwell via Wikipedia
Mary Shelley’s portrait by Richard Rothwell via Wikipedia

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.

Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick

Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick

Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. DickIn Radio Free Albemuth, Dick describes an alternate reality in which a man, Ferris Freemont, has manipulated events, including the murder of JFK and other politicians, in order to rise to power.  Once he attains the highest seat of power as the president, he rigs elections and starts a witch-hunt against a group called Aramcheck. 

I read this book because I discovered there was a movie made of it and who doesn’t like to read books and then watch the movie, whether bad or good, it’s fun.  But this was a difficult one.  I discovered for the 2nd time now that I am not a PKD type.  The first PKD I read was Clans of the Alphane Moon and it was actually pretty cool, but I remember deciding to myself that I’m not so sure about PKD, at least regarding future audiobook purchases.

Clans of the Alphane Moon is a fun light-hearted story and funny too.  I will never forget the buddy of the main character who is an alien blob named Lord Running Clans of the Alphane MoonClam…!!!!  I get a smile on my face just thinking about that.  Hard to imagine it was written in 1964.  It seemed rather timeless.  (Is that Lord Running Clam on the far right???)

On the other hand, Philip Dick writes himself into Radio Free Albemuth, like Stephen King does in The Dark Tower, and it’s not a cohesive storyline like in Clans.  It’s about a supernatural alien force, or collective, that communicates with Dick’s best friend and tries to overthrow the evil Ferris Freemont government.  To call it weird is an understatement.  The book is completely out of the box.

It actually starts out better than it ends.  At the beginning, the author (this is PKD speaking in first person here) and his best friend live in Berkeley.  He proceeds to take jabs at both liberals and conservatives, which is always a good idea and he does it well.

It’s hard to understand what I didn’t like about Dick’s writing but the closest I can come is that it has too many continually abstract passages.  Like when an author is going into a lot of detail about philosophy, or another plane of existence, or a trance-like imagining.  Too much abstract mumbo-jumbo, stuff that is probably important to the storyline, but that I can’t stomach.  I have to come back to a moment in time more often than this book allows.

And it’s entirely possible that I just don’t get it.  Like Douglas Adams, another funny sci-fi guy.  I read one or two but it’s not my thing.  Incredibly inventive authors though.

Human fallibility, an important concept (Le Guin)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness, newer printingAfter all the writing I’ve done on this book, one more thing sticks with me.

The main character of this book, Genly Ai, a man from Earth, is on the cold planet Gethen where humans (yes, he calls them humans) are androgynous, far in the future.  Instead of being male or female, they turn so only for a couple of days of their 26 day month in a continuous cycle where they can be male or female depending on who is in their environment.

It’s a fascinating idea, a world lacking in the burden of childbearing being only on one-half of the population, no rape, and where there is no male-female duality.

But what I want to address here is that Genly Ai’s life is saved by a man whom he disliked throughout the book until the man saves his life.  We are fully 2/3rds through the book before this happens.  This man, Estraven, is stiff and unfriendly, in the eyes of Genly.  Genly distrusts him and greatly misjudges his character.

For a main character to make this kind of mistake is a great tenet of this book.  In reality (Le Guin might say “And whose reality are you referring to?”) we make these kinds of mistakes all the time.  We look at someone and make a judgment and the worst of us never veer from that judgment even when faced with opposing facts.

Estraven is a forward-thinker.  When all others are fighting among themselves over nation borders, he looks to the future as a member of a galactic organization and imagines:

“Our border now is no line between two hills, but the line our planet makes in circling the Sun.”

He also talks about “patriotism”:

“What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry?”

And later, when he is asked a question that he cannot answer, says:

“Silence is not what I should choose, yet it suits me better than a lie.”

If only we could get away with that answer, when applicable.

Genly Ai, a good man to begin with, is greatly humbled by the end of the book, after experiencing the generosity and unbiased nature of Estraven.

The book itself is the report Genly Ai puts together for the organization that he represents, which is a terrific way of creating a book in my view.  It’s a step Le Guin must have taken on the way to Always Coming Home, the novel that I will reread and post about soon, one that is basically written in text book style, a study of a future culture, and a fascinating read, as is The Left Hand of Darkness.