Being a lover of older books and science-fiction when I discover a book that is in effect both I become really interested, so when I discovered that Mary Shelley (of [book:Frankenstein] fame) wrote a book about the last man left alive on Earth (or as she puts it in her book the LAST MAN), I was immediately interested, so instead of attempting to troll through the chain store bookstores here in Australia (which generally consists of Dymoks, now that Borders has effectively gone, and all of the other bookshops simply sell rubbish that you read once and then toss – not that I am in favour of book burning, but these books are the types of books that simply take up space on an overcrowded bookshelf) I jumped onto Amazon and ordered it (along with a bunch of other stuff, but now that the Australian government is doing is damndest to undermine the strength of the Australian dollar, that is going to be an unlikely event in the future).
Anyway, when I started reading this book I found that it was pretty slow going, and because I did not want to waste my overseas holiday earlier this year reading a boring and dull book, I put it away to go back to it again later. Granted, this book does start off really slow, but when you hit part two it really begins to pick up.
The book is set three hundred years in the future (at least from Shelley's perspective, though it is only a hundred years from ours) though the thing that I noticed was that technology had not effectively advanced that much. While Shelley did not have much to work from with regards to speculative science-fiction (this only started to occur with Verne and Wells) one would have expected that there was a suggestion that people were not running around in horses and carriages. However, as I have suggested, the concept of speculative science-fiction was still at least fifty years off, so one cannot blame Shelley for not creating a more futuristic like world (and in any case, it was not her intention to write a speculative piece). However, the story begins with a political crisis in England (actually it begins with the narrator being found wondering around as a man beast and being brought back to civilisation) where there is a push for the abdication of the king and a movement to a parliamentary democracy. This occurs at the end of book one, and book two begins with the former king and the narrator going on a European holiday and ending up in Greece.
This is interesting because at the time of writing the Greeks had just won the a war of independence (with a lot of help from the likes of Lord Bryon and the British) but there was still a large Turkish influence in the land. The story fast forwards to the future where the protagonists join the ongoing struggle where the Turks have been completely removed from Greece and they are laying siege to Istanbul, and this is where things begin to pick up, because while the Turks are pretty much defeated, out of the ashes of Istanbul comes this disease which spreads out from the ruins of this great city to begin to envelope the world. The rest of the book has the protagonist watch as the disease begins to decimate the civilised world and as one by one everybody close to him begins to die eventually leaving him left as the LAST MAN left on Earth.
The Last Man is a somewhat dark, yet poetic, book, and Shelley does drop in numerous lines from poets throughout the ages (something that is generally not done anymore, but then again the writers back then wrote for the sake or writing rather than writing simply for money – Shelley did not really have a need for money). If you look at the Wikipedia page on this book you will see that the main characters all relate to people that Shelley knows, and it is suggested (quite strongly in fact) that the book is written after all of her friends had died effectively leaving her alone in the world.
Loneliness is a funny thing because you can be surrounded by people yet feel utterly alone, and this is the feeling I get from Shelley, being the last of her peer group to survive (and since she was a woman, and back in those days women were not supposed to write because that was a male domain, it must have been very lonely for her). I guess this is one of the curses of old age in that as we watch the people that we know and have known for a while begin to die we lose part of ourself because at that age, while we can still make new friends, the thing that a new friend does not have is the time spent with our old friends, the influence that we have had on each other, and the connections that a lifetime of friendship has created. I know that I have friends which simply cannot be replicated by a new person because that past simply does not exist. This is much more truer when it comes to family because, once again, there is an aspect of the relationship that simply cannot be replicated. Every relationship is different, in fact every relationship is unique because there are things and events that cannot be replicated (for instance if you go to the 2010 Stereosonic Music Festival with a friend, no other friend is going to have the same experience, and the same relationship, that you had with this friend at the 2010 Stereosonic Music Festival).
The last thing I wish to note is that as I read this book I felt that there was a lot of Day of the Triffids here. Obviously Shelley did not base her book on that book (since it was written about 150 years after) but I suspect that John Wyndham had been influenced somewhat by Shelley. Shelley is pretty much famous for Frankenstein, however it is clear that she wrote much more than just that one book. While we may consider Jules Verne to be the father of Science-fiction, we can go further back and consider Shelley to be its mother (though this is not the first apocalyptic story written, because St John wrote one 1800 years earlier called the Book of Revelation).