The Last Man

Mary Shelley is primarily known for writing Frankenstein (1818), and while many people think themselves familiar with the tale, their knowledge is usually based on the many play and film adaptations, rather than the original literary text. In the Billion Year Spree: The History Of Science Fiction (1973), Brian Aldiss argued quite successfully that Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel. Certainly the creation of a manufactured being, based to some extent on the science of the day should qualify as such.

How then should we examine Shelley’s later novel, The Last Man (1826)? While I don’t believe that it really qualifies as science fiction, many of the themes Shelley includes are familiar to a modern audience. This post apocalyptic tale will seem familiar to readers of modern anthologies such as Wastelands, edited by John Joseph Adams. Stories like The Last Man bear a strong similarity to works by Stephen King, such as The Stand (1978), where a global catastrophe has depopulated the earth. Unlike King’s novel, Mary Shelley’s story lacks the supernatural elements, aside from the narrative framing device. Shelley mourns for a lost world, just as she mourned for her husband and child. As she notes in her novel, “all things proceed, decay, and perish”.

Much of her novel can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Many of the characters seem based off those in her life. The story is a kind of momento mori, memorializing those who proceeded her. In many ways, The Last Man deals with death and emotion in a far more sophisticated way than Shelley dealt with this issue in Frankenstein. While Victor Frankenstein is unable to express grief or true remorse for anyone, in The Last Man, Lionel Verney memorializes the entire world, saying that “my thoughts were gems to enrich the treasure house of man’s intellectual possessions; each sentiment was a precious gift I bestowed on them”. Verney becomes a kind of living monument to the peoples of the earth.

This theme can also be seen in Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend (1954), for which the movie adaptation starring Will Smith utterly fails to conclude in a satisfying manner. In Matheson’s novel, Neville is also a “last man”, fighting for the memory of mankind.

While Shelley’s The Last Man may not fully qualify as science fiction, the themes she used have formed a groundwork for authors who have worked inside and outside the genre ever since.

Current Reading

A quick overview of my current reading projects.

The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, by William St Clair

As can likely be guessed by the title, this is an academic study of reading habits throughout the Romantic period. It actually goes further than this, with a thorough examination of how intellectual property laws were developed to support the printing industry, and how this affected book prices, print runs, and general availability of books through the Romantic and Victorian ages. There are roughly three hundred pages of appendices containing tables of print runs and unit price of various works of interest throughout the period. It’s a very complex study, and I’ve only read a few chapters so far, but I’ve been quite impressed so far. The impact of intellectual property is especially relevant today, especially when one considers the Google Books settlement. I’m certainly oversimplifying the importance of this book, I just haven’t read enough of it yet to fully grasp whats going on.

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

I’m reading the Bison Books edition from 2006, which aside from a few minor alterations, exactly follows the text of the first (1826) edition. I’ve only read two chapters so far, and I intend on taking notes while reading this. I can see some similarities already with Frankenstein, as Lionel starts out a rough savage, to be later educated in the classics. The opening chapters focus on the wilderness and freedom of youth, which I expect to recur as the novel progresses. It should be a most interesting novel.

Campus Chills, edited by Mark Leslie

I read several of the stories in this anthology when it launched, and I’m finally getting around to finishing it off. The best stories so far have been ones deeply rooted in a particular location. Three of the stories were written by Waterloo graduates. Julie E. Czerneda’s “The Forever Brotherhood”, James Alan Gardner’s “Truth-Poison”, and Douglas Smith’s “Radio Nowhere” all take place on the Waterloo campus. I was fortunate enough to attend the book launch in October, and all three read excerpts from their stories. Kimberly Foottit and Mark Leslie wrote “Prospero’s Ghost” which takes place at McMaster. “Different Skins” by Michael Kelly takes place on Philosopher’s Walk at the University of Toronto.

The story I liked best from this anthology is Douglas Smith’s “Radio Nowhere“, which has recently been posted on his website. While all the stories give some view of the supernatural, hauntings and horror, “Radio Nowhere” also carried a great melancholic sense of guilt and  loss. It’s a great story.

I’m reading some other books at the moment as well, but they’re currently on hold while I focus on these.