From the writer who brought Frankenstein to the world, Mary Shelley we have another book, written almost 200 years ago which has become a modern sci-fi staple concept.
The Last Man throws the reader into the future and contemplates a world where humans are facing a rapid extinction by disease. One man discovers he is inexplicably immune and we experience him watching the world die around him.
At the time, “last person” stories were popular as romantic short stories. These stories were brief indulgences of wistful despair in which the last person alive finds some personal comfort and solace in art, culture, creative expression, and so on. There was little philosophical or logistical exercise into the scenario, however.
This story was written to “go against the grain” of that trend for a more in-depth exploration of how it might happen, what would actually happen, and how it might really feel. In this story, the things that served as saving graces in the romantic versions of these stories we consider which make us an advanced and romantic civilization – , etc – are helpless to stop the advance of this deadly disease, and only science can save the day.
In fact, The Last Man was so fiercely against the romantic trend that when it was first released, it was harshly received by critics, and Shelley herself was criticized as having possession of “a sick mind”. Now, keep in mind, this was in comparison to Victorian sensibilities, and since then her contemplation on the “last man” scenario has made a very strong foundation for deeper explorations by other writers ever since.
As in Frankenstein, science plays a role. In Frankenstein, of course, it became a villain, the tool used by Dr. Frankenstein to create his monster. It was the ignorance-driven distrust of science that made it easy to be vilified. In The Last Man, science receives somewhat of a redemption as it is realized that for all the advancements, refinements and distractions we have as humans, it is a serious dedication to the sciences that will serve us best in the event of a world-exterminating event.
Shelley explores themes like cruelty, isolation and the futility of romantic ideals, and presents the idea that we are all isolated in our own ways.
It is thought that the main character, Lionel Verney, was modelled after Mary Shelley’s own life so much that the character is almost thought to be autobiographical.
If you, like me, are not a fast reader this could be a hefty read, at 479 pages, but it is well worth it to see Shelley’s exploration of this and you will probably recognize a lot of ideas borrowed and built on by later writers.