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The Last Man

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The Last Man is supposed to be a post apocalyptic science fiction novel.  It was published in 1826.  It relates the tale that the world is ravaged by a plague leaving one man on the planet.  It is also supposed to have semi-biographical portraits of Shelley's, by then,  late husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.  It was heavily criticised at the time and was virtually unknown until a scholarly revival in the 1960's.


I can understand why it was heavily criticised.  Apart from two mentions in the whole text of the date - 2069 or somesuch - there was no futuristic atmosphere at all.  People travelled on horses or in horse-drawn carriages, there were Kings and Queens and a Lord Protector of England, no electricity, no telephones or other means of long-distance communications (people are described as riding for some hours to find out if someone they know is still alive),  sail boats are still used etc.  The prose is, imho, unnecessarily complicated and unnecessarily verbose.  Shelley does spend two and three pages describing the surroundings when a few lines would have done. 


The plot itself is also a bit strange.  As the plague bites, people gather together for safety and reassurance and a leader emerges, nothing wrong with that.  However, it's decided that travelling from England to Switzerland would be a good idea, the thinking being that the cold and the fresh air would help diminish the plague  - this is supposed to be set in the future and yet it's obvious that there is absolutely no medicine to be had anywhere.  People became ill and then died, whether is was of the plague or something else,  this made it hard to visualize a futuristic setting - so they all set off on foot or horse or horse drawn carriage and picked up people who had been left in cities along the way.  As the journey progresses the people in the group start to die of the plague but the group and it's leader still think that it's a good idea to travel to Switzerland so carry on.  When they get there they find that everybody there has died and it was only then that they started to wonder if it had been a good idea to travel. By that time there were 3 of them left and they all decided to continue to travel, this time to Italy.


I did not see the characters of Shelley's late husband or that of Lord Byron in the characters of the book but that may just have been me. 


The physical book is also weird.  The copy I originally bought was the unabridged 1826 version which was very strangely laid out.  There were no page numbers and the text only covered 75% of the page, most of the time.  It had a lot of white space and was very thick to hold.  There was no explanation for this.  However, I found a copy that I could read, albeit without page numbers and used that.


I enjoyed the book for what it was.  Shelley's writing is lovely and her language is an enjoyable experience. And it is language that I suspect won't be usual elsewhere. However, I struggled towards the end of the book with her verbosity and the complicated nature of her sentence structure meant that I could only read a chapter at a time.   I do like a challenge though, so I took my time and I'm glad that I persevered.  Overall it was an enjoyable book but I would not recommend it to others.

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