The Last Man on Earth

apocalypse loading

I discovered this past week that Mary Shelley wrote a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel titled The Last Man.  Most people only know Mary Shelley as the author of Frankenstein, if they know her at all. They might also know her as the wife of the poet Perch Bysshe Shelley. On the Amazon page for The Last Man, the section “about the author” is mistakenly about her husband.  Damn!

Mary founded or helped to found modern science fiction with her 1816 classic about a man playing God. I admit to knowing very little about her other novels and a lot about Frankenstein which at one time I taught. That is a tough novel to teach for a variety of reasons. First, it is quite another century in style and vocabulary. Plus, it has the disadvantage today of having been adapted so many times as films – from the classic Boris Karloff film to Mel Brooks’ send-up in Young Frankenstein – that everyone assumes they know the story. But the novel is quite different from the films and quite serious.

Mary also wrote historical novels (Valperga and Perkin Warbeck ) which I know nothing about, and then in 1826 her apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826) and her final two novels, Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837).

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

Her post-apocalyptic novel may have created that subgenre in science fiction. I looked at The Last Man in its free ebook version  (not my favorite way to read – I still prefer reading on paper). It is the story of the end of human civilization. One really gloomy aspect is that the end comes in the late twenty-first century. Compared to her husband and his contemporaries who were deep into Romanticism, her novel is more of a reaction against Romanticism.

The literary trope Mary Shelley uses for this book is that she found the manuscript which is made up of connected stories. They were found in the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl and she says, “I present the public with my latest discoveries in the slight Sibylline pages. Scattered and unconnected as they were, I have been obliged to add links, and model the work into a consistent form. But the main substance rests on the truths contained in these poetic rhapsodies and the divine intuition which the Cumaean damsel obtained from heaven.”

The book is about a world that has been ravaged by a plague. Was it serendipity or synchronicity that I stumbled upon this book now in this time of a modern plague?

The book in its ebook format didn’t catch my interest, so I didn’t get far into its 340 pages. But the story is that the narrator, Lionel Verney, is writing in the year 2100 and he believes he is the last human alive. He records the events leading to the plague and how humankind disappeared. He plans to journey out to see if anyone survived in some other distant place.

I’m confused about the chronology presented on the pages. Mary Shelley says she found the writings in 1818 in the cave. The cave was a place where sybils lived. The sibyls were oracles in Ancient Greece who made prophecies. This cave is near Naples, Italy. The prophetic writings she finds are about living in 2073 and tell Lionel’s and the planet’s story from then until he sets out to find others. But Lionel’s world sounds like Shelley’s 1820s.

The novels’ plague is probably metaphorical, (like Camus’s plague) and ultimately about how Shelley sees various philosophies and movements of her time led by Godwin, her mother Wollstonecraft, Burke and others in the Enlightenment as failed experiments.

Not a lot of optimism in this story that Mary wrote in the time after the deaths of three of her children. Two of them died because of widespread infectious diseases that had no prevention or cure. And her great love, Percy, had drowned in a boating accident.

With only one person left on Earth (perhaps) a reader would have to be thinking that our protagonist is a commentary on the individual isolated in society.  Her Frankenstein is full of science and its abuse and in some ways, it seems that the world of The Last Man is a place where science has failed to find a solution.

Maybe Mary found herself like Lionel. In his story, his family and friends each die from the plague. He is alone and wondering whether it was worth going on.  Why does Lionel have immunity? What does his immunity mean?

The novel ends (Yes, I skipped ahead.) in spring and though the spring of 2020 has been more pessimistic, there is optimism in that season and Lionel is optimistic in that he keeps going and hopes to find others who are also continuing to live.

There Will Come Soft Rains

As a follow-up to my earlier post  on the disappearance of humans from the Earth, I offer “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a 1918 poem by Sara Teasdale. The poem imagines nature reclaiming Earth after a war that has led to human extinction. It is interesting that she wrote this poem 25 years before the invention of nuclear weapons.


There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.


Ray Bradbury wrote a story in 1950 that used Teasdale’s title as its title. The story shows us a world in which the human race has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Bradbury was writing during the “Cold War” era when the devastating effects of nuclear force was frequently in the news.

To the Children of the New World


The future often looks dystopian to writers of fiction. Since the election, the future seems dystopian in the real world to some people. In dystopian literature, the world of the future is the opposite of utopian. Everything is terrible and unpleasant. Sometimes it is a totalitarian society. Sometimes the world has been destroyed by war or is environmentally degraded.

That doesn’t seem like a world you would want to read about, but we have been reading about these places for a long time. Wikipedia’s list of dystopian novels spans from Gulliver’s Travels, through The Time Machine, Brave New World, 1984, Player Piano, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale and Infinite Jest.

You can say that reading this literature is not something we do only out of pessimism, but we view them as cautionary tales. They are the Ghost of Christmas Future come to warn us of what might be if we continue on our current path.

These thoughts came to me as I read Children of the New World, a collection of stories by Alexander Weinstein. The stories use many of our current fears about technology gone mad. It exists not too far in the future but in a time when social media implants and memory manufacturing are possible. There are frighteningly immersive virtual reality games that aren’t so much games as they become reality. Robots are alarmingly intuitive. Many futures seem utopian at the beginning. These stories cover both ends. We have a utopian future of instant connection and gratification, at the cost of human distance, a price some of us are already willing to pay. There is also the world after the collapse landscape where we are once again primitive and rebuilding.

How about taking a vacation for $99? You can, by having a memory of a perfect vacation placed in your brain. It will be as real as any vacation you have actually take, but this one is perfect. (see false memories) The character who works for a company that creates and sells virtual memories in “The Cartographers” is so charmed by his creations that he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain a real-world relationship, or separate the virtual from the real.

“In this haunting and prescient debut collection, Weinstein evokes a vaguely dystopian, domestic existence where virtual reality, cybernetics, and social media are second nature. Like today we are disconnected despite being connected. We feel the insidious reach of technology, corporate forces, and climate change tightening into a chokehold. Over 13 tales, he steeps us in a realm of alternate realities close to our own, but each with a thought-provoking twist.”   – The Boston Globe

Two of the stories that got me thinking were the title story and “Saying Goodbye to Yang.” What these stories share are children. In the latter story, the robot brother of an adopted Chinese girl malfunctions and needs to be taken away, and finally buried. But he has become a real brother and son. This theme was explored in the Steven Spielberg film AI from the point of view of the robot child, and in the recent TV series Humans.

In our desire to make robots and AI more human, we encounter the fear that they will gain sentience and become human – or close enough that we can’t tell the difference. In that story and in the film and television series, the families do not recognize the attachment they have to the robot until it is gone.

This speculative fiction of Alexander Weinstein is dark, sad and sometimes funny. It is not set that far into the future, and the technology is not so much sci-fi as it is extensions of what already exists. That makes it more frightening and perhaps more prescient.

In the story, “Children of the New World,” we find a couple who enter the Dark City and a virtual world. Here they can have everything they need, including things they never had in their real life, such as children. But a virtual world can be infected by viruses.

Mary took the children into our bedroom and I logged off to call online support. The man on the other end of the line spoke broken English, the line buzzing from an overseas connection. He tried a couple options with me, and finally said, “Sir, your account is corrupted. You will have to reset all files to the initial settings.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You must delete all data from your account—your preferences, photos and music. You will need to recreate your bodies again. I see you have children.”
“You will need to delete them.”

These 13 rather short stories are an easy and fast read. Hopefully, they leave a reader thinking. As with any great film, I want to talk to people after I watch or read something “thought-provoking.” I want human connections.

“Rocket Night” reminds me immediately of Shirley Jackson’s shocker “The Lottery.” The story is told by a parent in a calm, polite, logical way. It is about an event not unlike many held at elementary schools now, but for a twist that is revealed in the opening line.

“It was Rocket Night at our daughter’s elementary school, the night when parents, students, and the administration gather to place the least liked child in a rocket and shoot him into the stars. Last year we placed Laura Jackson into the capsule, a short, squat girl known for her limp dresses which hung crookedly on her body. The previous year we’d sent off a boy from India whose name none of us could remember.”

The more connected we are through technology, the less connected we really are to people and our world. Sherry Turkle’s non-fiction, Alone Together, made that point quite clearly right in its title and subtitle – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”

I see that online many readers compare Weinstein’s stories to the current series Black Mirror and to the past Twilight Zone. I can see those connections, but there are many comparisons that can be made.

This book took me back to the short stories of Ray Bradbury that I loved in my youth, and have reread with new meanings lately. In those stories I found a child visiting a museum that had the last remaining tree on Earth. I discovered many years ago a smart home in “There Will Come Soft Rains.”  And in the disturbing story “The Veldt,” I could imagine the two children playing in their  “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they could imagine, and the horror a child’s imagination might create.

Weinstein dedicates the book to his son, and parenting is something that runs through many of the stories. It is something that exists in all dystopian tales, because even if it is a future we personally will never see, we wonder about our children and their children. And we are worried.

Huxley Was Right


The English author Aldous Huxley was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a scientist who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his defense of the theory of evolution.

Huxley published four novels in the late 1920s satirizing English literary society and was fairly well known. But most readers know him for his fifth book, Brave New World in 1932.

Huxley said he started out to write a parody of the 1923 Utopian novel Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells (an author I loved as a kid, but who has fallen off the list as I find out more about his politics), but Huxley’s growing distrust of politics and technology led him to a serious blend of science and fiction and a disturbing vision of a future that looks the assembly lines in Henry Ford’s automobile factories that were so praised in Huxley’s time for their efficiency and uniformity. Brave New World is set in London in a time we would call AD 2540, but is marked as 632 A.F. – “After Ford.”

Every few months, as we sicken over our own times, someone will compare our society to those in Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley was writing after World War I, but  Orwell was writing during World War II (his 1984 reversed the 1948 that it was published). Orwell had seen and heard more that disturbed him, but it is hard to say which book is a more disturbing dystopian future.

In the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman compare the two visions in this way:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”

Whose vision of the future seems closest to our present?

Is it Orwell’s fear of fear, or more like Huxley fear that our desires will destroy us?

I side with Aldous Huxley these days. His mass-produced culture full of trivial and empty amusements seems closer to what I see around me.  A society full of people taking antidepressants like Huxley’s “soma” so that you are oblivious to anything unpleasant or negative also seems closer to our times.

Perhaps if I lived in an even more totalitarian country (see Middle East, Africa and South America), Orwell might resonate louder in my ears.

Huxley followed up on Brave New World with a reassessment (not a sequel) in his essay, “Brave New World Revisited” in 1958.

His final novel, Island, published in 1962, updates his thoughts on society.

In Island, the protagonist, a cynical journalist, is shipwrecked on the fictional island of Pala. If Brave New World is dystopian, then Island is his Utopian counterpart. When he updated the foreword to Brave New World in 1946, he said: “If I were now to rewrite the book, I would offer the Savage a third alternative. Between the Utopian and primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the possibility of sanity.”

I think I have read all of Huxley’s books, but I need to reread at least some of them. I’m pretty sure that the 15 or 16 year old me that read The Doors of Perception or Brave New World was not able to grasp all that was contained in those pages. They definitely left an impression with me, but the times and my place in the world has altered so much that almost every book I read in my youth could qualify as a new book now.

Huxley died on November 23, 1963 in the City of Angels. This observer of the world and explorer of inner worlds, wrote a request to his wife (he was unable to speak) for “LSD, 100 µg, intramuscular”. His wife’s account of his death in her memoir This Timeless Moment, says she followed his wishes. Not so much a request for a “soma” to dull death, but for something to open him up to whatever was coming next.

You’re not missing much that would be worth writing about, Al.



Mike Wallace interviews Aldous Huxley (May 1958)

Huxley’s other books include the novels Eyeless in Gaza, and The Genius and the God, and critically acclaimed nonfiction works as The Devils of Loudun, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, and The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West.