As we all know Mary Shelley wrote sci-fi before H. G. Wells or Jules Verne and was one of the main pioneers of the genre. Everyone’s familiar with Frankenstein and probably everyone looking at this post has read it. It is the first mad-scientist sub genre book and many consider it the first work which can logically be labeled sci-fi. But I’m going to talk about a lesser known book of hers that is also significant to the sci-fi genre, The Last Man. It is the first written work of the sci-fi sub genre of a sole survivor of earth. A still popular plot, often used in books and movies two hundred years later.
A good place to start with Mary Shelley’s work is with Mary herself. Mary Wollenstoncraft, an author and the most important feminist of the day, died due to child birth complications nine days after giving birth to her daughter, Mary Wollenstoncraft Godwin. Mary’s father was the famed philosopher and author, William Godwin. Shortly after his wife’s death, William married Mary Jane Clairmont. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin grew up in a household with her half sister, Fanny Imlay, from a liaison her mother had with an American, and her step mothers’ two children from a previous marriage, Charles and Claire Clairmont, and her half-brother William, the child of her father and his new wife.
When she was 16 Mary fell in love with the poet, Percy Shelley and ran off with him, even though he was married. Mary gave birth seven months into her first pregnancy and the premature baby died shortly after. Her next pregnancy produced a healthy son, William. Soon after that, Percy’s wife, Harriet, drowned herself and her unborn child. Then Mary’s half sister, Fanny, committed suicide. After that, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Clara. That child died a year later and the next year her son William died. She became pregnant again and gave birth to her son, Percy, the only child who survived. After that Mary suffered a dangerous miscarriage she barely survived. Then her husband drowned in a boating accident. By the time all this loss occurred, Mary was only 24 years old. In the few sentences above, these facts about her life, we can see the tragedies she experienced contributed to her creations of both Frankenstein and The Last Man and gave her the emotions she needed to pull from to write them.
I also wanted to mention that at the time they were first published both Frankenstein and The Last Man received terrible reviews but both sold well and were widely talked about by readers of the day. Shelley was a brave author who wrote what she wanted to write even if it went against political, religious or social beliefs of the time. We owe much to her for that. The sci-fi genre owes much to Mary Shelley for that.
“The last day passed thus: each moment contained eternity; although when hour after hour had gone by, I wondered at the quick flight of time. Yet even now I had not drunk the bitter potion to the dregs; I was not yet persuaded of my loss; I did not yet feel in every pulsation in every nerve , in every thought that I remained alone of my race, — that I was the LAST MAN.”
The Last Man is set in the 21st century and written in first person. The writing is elegant with marvelous description. Verney tells the story of his life. Through mistakes of his father, he and his sister, Perdita, are cast out of a happy life into one of poor lonely orphans. He forms a plan of vengeance against the people who brought this ruin. The main culprit was the king, who is dead. When the king’s son, Adrian, comes to Verney’s town he sets his plan in motion. However, Adrian turns out to be a great supporter of Verney’s late father. Verney rises from his life of despair and longing with the help of Adrian, who becomes his lifelong best friend. This circle of six friends: Verney, Perdita, Adrian a poet and intellectual , Raymond a hero nobleman (who marries Perdita) , Adrian’s sister, Idris (who marries Verney) and Evadne, a Greek princess, have many ups and downs in their lives. Eventually, most end up married with children and quite happy and settled. But Perdita’s husband, Raymond, cheats on her with Evadne. So Perdita leaves Raymond. A war between the Greeks and the Turks break out and Raymond fights in it as does Evadne. She dies on the battlefield and Verney finds her body and buries her. As Raymond is on his death bed from mortal war wounds, Perdita goes to him and forgives him. When he dies, she kills herself.
Soon after this an epidemic begins. It’s unknown what causes it or how it spreads. It goes from country to country. For a long time England is untouched by it. Due to the plague and several natural disasters in different parts of the world, England is filled with immigrants. Then the symptoms reach a patient in a hospital in London. In the year 2096 the few survivors of the plague in England decide to leave and find some untouched part of the world. Verney, Adrian, and their families are at the forefront of this group.
They sail from England, leaving it depopulated. The group decides to pass the hot months in the icy valley of Switzerland. As they journey there Idris, Verney’s wife. dies from the plague. By the time they arrive in Switzerland it, like every other place, is empty of people. After seven years the plague ends. Thinking danger has passed they leave the alps to go into Italy and pass the winter in Milan. Then they spend the summer in a villa by a lake. There one of the children is struck with a sudden fever and dies. They burry the child and sail their skiff toward Athens. But a storm overtakes the ship . Everyone is drowned in the shipwreck except Verney.
Verney enters the town of Ravenna near where the wreck occurred. He sees oxen, dogs, horses, birds, and other animals but no men among them. After staying a while in Ravennna, he heads to Rome, the capital of the world, the crown of man’s achievement. He finds pens and paper and writes a book about his life, which is the book – The Last Man. He leaves it in the ancient city of this world as a sole monument of Verney the LAST MAN. He then leaves Rome to sail around the shores of deserted Earth.
The Last Man is elegantly written with marvelous descriptions. It is written in first person with complicated characters. However, keep in mind it is written in the Regency era for Regency era readers. In that time period writing did not demand nor did the readers want fast pacing, hooks or a balance of dialogue and narrative. This book has far more narrative than dialogue. Therefore it may be slow reading for us modern readers. I had to push myself to get through it at times, but I am so glad I read it.
The next time you are writing, reading, or watching a movie or TV show with a mad scientist or sole survivor on earth plot, take a silent moment to thank Mary Shelley. And if you’re at a con or other event and someone says something like women are new to Sci-Fi, you might just want to remind them that women have been reading and wiring Sci-Fi for over two hundred years.
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Maeve Alpin, who also writes as Cornelia Amiri, is the author of 19 books. She creates stories with kilts, corsets, fantasy and happy endings. Her latest Steampunk/Romance is Conquistadors In Outer Space. She lives in Houston Texas with her son, granddaughter, and her cat, Severus.