Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Another chapter, another funeral
Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man was originally published in 1826. As the title indicates, it is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, a category of literature that I usually enjoy. Though technically it does fulfill the requirements of the genre, it doesn’t do so in a satisfying way. Shelly spends so much time leading up to the apocalypse that you barely even get to the post.

The story takes place in the late 20th century. Back when Shelley wrote the book, you couldn’t just tell a story set in the future. You had to come up with some device by which the story could conceivably be read by 19th-century readers. To accomplish this, she opens the book with a silly prologue about how this manuscript was found in a cave in Italy. It was transcribed by an ancient sibyl who prophetically read the future book through psychic means.

The narrator of the story is Lionel Verney. The son of an English nobleman whose father fell from grace with the crown, he has been reduced to herding sheep. For many years he harbors an understandable hatred toward the throne until he meets Adrian, Earl of Windsor, who through brotherly friendship pacifies Verney and wins him over. When England’s monarchical government is dissolved in favor of a republic, an ambitious war hero named Lord Raymond aspires to lead the nation. It’s been said by literary scholars that Shelley based the character of Verney on herself, Adrian on her husband Percy Shelley, and Raymond on their friend Lord Byron. If so, they must have had one strange relationship because Raymond is universally adored as a flawless godhead whose very Christlike downfall causes God to punish the world with cataclysm. At least half of the book is spent on these characters and their love lives before anything interesting happens. After reading through so much overwrought melodrama, this world couldn’t end soon enough for me.

When the apocalypse does finally arrive, it comes with a whimper rather than a bang. The fun part about the post-apocalyptic genre is imagining what the world will be like after almost everyone is gone, but we really don’t get much of that here. It just takes forever for these people to die. For those that remain alive in the devastated world, moments of hope and industry are few and far between. Towards the end, a tedious pattern emerges in which a different character dies in each chapter, and Verney heaps lamentations upon his or her corpse while contemplating the insignificance of man in the face of nature. After the first few eulogies it gets pretty old.

Another annoying aspect of the book is the way Shelly deals with class. She gives some halfhearted lip service to the idea that the end of the world is the great leveler of social status: “We were all equal now.” Yet the same group of aristocrats is still ruling the world until the very end. Even when England forms a republic, the same rich, blue-blooded lords still rule the roost, like father figures to the helpless, childlike plebs. The one character who is designed to represent the commoners ends up branded a coward. Even when the vast majority of the world’s population has perished, people are still working as servants and innkeepers to Adrian and Verney, despite all the surplus property that must have suddenly become available.

I previously had a disappointing experience with Frankenstein, so I should have known better. Bore me once, Mary Shelley, shame on you. Bore me twice, shame on me.
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