book review: the last man

I’m not gonna lie to you Marge; it took me a long time to get through Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. It was eventually interesting in what it did, but was remarkably tedious in getting there.

The book, written in 1826, was set in the end of the twenty-first century, but as far as fiction about the future goes, it’s pretty unimaginative. Everything is exactly like the early 19th century except England is considering becoming a republic, and there is an airship. The wars between the Turks and Greeks are fought with cavalry charges and there are loads of peasants who know their place and yeah. It would be difficult to get to that future from our present, but it was kind of fun to speculate about as a distraction during the first half of the book (which needs distraction). The frame I put into it is that the reason everything feels like 1830 in the year 2070 is because of some sort of unmentioned apocalypse which happened in the 2010s and been forgotten by the time the novel begins.

In that first half of the book we follow our protagonist and his boon companions through political intrigues about who shall become the lord protector of England and who shall engage in stupid idiot romance plot shenanigans to cause drama. I hated the first half of the book so much. A big plot point is that one character does something that could be taken the wrong way but because he keeps secrets it looks worse and then no one will talk about anything and then he goes off to war to die because his wife didn’t trust him enough when he was being an asshole. It was the kind of scenario that requires one sentence of communication to resolve but everyone is too puppeted by the author to say it. Terrible shit. Though this was the Romantic period so what did I think was going to happen?

Anyway. Halfway through the book the world is struck by a deadly plague and then it turns into a kind of slow post-apocalyptic story that I could get behind. People just die and die and die. You get inured to it. The plague comes from Asia and wipes out the entire human race in something like 8 years (and 200 pages). There’s lots of whining and moping about it (granted, everyone is dying so it’s a bit justified) and heroism and terrible religious groups sprouting up and general awfulness. It’s all a bit melodramatic, but what can you do?

It takes till the last 15 pages or so before the narrator actually is the last man on earth, so if you’re looking for a 19th century I Am Legend, this isn’t it. But if you read it as a cyclical story of the death of a world and arising of another it’s kind of neat. The ending is pretty optimistic for the entire human race but one being dead.

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