THE LAST MAN
by Mary Shelley
Bantam Classic, ISBN 0-553-21436-5, 1826 , 499pp, US$5.50
A book review by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 1996 Evelyn C. Leeper
While everyone else was re-issuing Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN to coincide with the release of Kenneth Branagh's MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN (and indeed there was even Leonore Fleischer's MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN, the novelization--think about it), Bantam published Shelley's other science fiction novel, THE LAST MAN. My suspicion is that not a lot of people ran right out and picked it up. First of all, it was in Bantam's "classics" series, so if bookstores ordered it at all it was put in the "Fiction" section, or the "Literature" section if they subdivide it further. (How do they determine what is literature and what is "merely" fiction?) And then its cover had a small reproduction of a painting of a pastoral English countryside, rather than a hideous monster with stitches and bolts glaring out at you. And finally a quick flip through would show that the specific science fiction element--a world-wide plague--doesn't even appear until most of the way through the book. (On the up side, if Mary Shelley is checking her sales from the astral plane, her books are quite popular in women's studies courses, so there is a market.)
The book starts in 2073. We know this because Shelley (in the voice of the narrator) tells us this. Otherwise we would have no idea, because the world that Shelley describes is that of 1823 when she was writing it. Oh, there are a few changes. People travel in airships (the Montgolfiers had already flown their balloons by 1823). And someone goes as ambassador to the "Northern States of America" (page 254). (Mark claims this last is pretty impressive in predicting the Civil War, but I suspect people could see it coming even then.) But the social structure of England is as it was in 1823, with power held by the monarch rather than by Parliament and elected officials. And people still get around on horses. And while having a war in the Balkans may sound very 21st Century these days, the war Shelley describes is the same war that Byron fought in, with the noble Greeks trying to gain their independence from the evil Turks. (And the war is fought in the same way, with the families of the officers following the troops to Greece and then staying at nearby villages while the troops marched off to formal battles.)
Much of the first two-thirds of the novel is a study of the social structure and attitudes of Shelley's own time, and works only if one reads it as a historical novel set in Shelley's time rather than a novel set in our future. But when the plague arrives, the novel becomes as convincing as a futuristic tale as such other "disaster" novels as EARTH ABIDES and ON THE BEACH. The style is still that of the early nineteenth century, of course, but the images of death and the decline of civilization are as vivid and enthralling as in any modern novel.
Is THE LAST MAN as good as FRANKENSTEIN? In the sense that the latter has been continuously in print in inexpensive editions for as long as I can remember (and quite possibly for over a hundred years before that) and has had an inestimable effect on science fiction (and horror), while the former has been almost inaccessible for much of that time and has had no identifiable effect, the answer has to be no. But if read without considering the context of subsequent authors, and considering the books as mainstream fiction rather than science fiction per se, THE LAST MAN is certainly a more polished, more considered, and more mature work than FRANKENSTEIN, and well worth the reading. I have to wonder what Shelley's other novels (VALPERGA, LODORE, and FALKNER) are like, but since they are not science fiction, they are probably totally unavailable.
%T The Last Man %A Mary Shelley %C New York %D 1826 %I Bantam Classic %O paperback, US$5.50  %G ISBN 0-553-21436-5 %P 499pp
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