The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

220px-The_Last_Man_1st_editionThe Last Man is just as depressing as it sounds. It’s a book by Mary Shelley that was panned on release but has gained a following in the last couple of decades as an important early example of post-apocalyptic literature. It’s also a fascinating look at Shelley’s emotional life, since the main characters are very loosely based on Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Claire Godwin.


The Last Man is told from the viewpoint of Lionel Verney, the impoverished son of a nobleman. Lionel is loosely, and again I emphasize loosely with regard to all of the characters, based on Mary Shelley. He becomes close friends with Adrian (shades of Percy Shelley) and Lord Raymond (Lord Byron). Lionel’s sister, Perditia (Claire Godwin) falls in love with Lord Raymond, and various love triangles ensue. There’s a revolution in Greece and political turmoil in England, and a lot of personal drama, until a plague hits and suddenly everyone has to focus on survival as one by one everyone dies.


The structure of the book is such that we know two things from the very start of the book: humanity is not going to die out, but everyone Lionel knows is going to die and the world as he knows it is going to end. There’s no victory in the book, it’s a just a long, long death march into misery. Any time something happy happens, it’s bittersweet because we know it won’t last. To read this book is to ponder the following quote from its pages: “What is there in our nature that is for ever urging us on towards pain and misery?”


There are early hints of trouble, but the apocalypse doesn’t really get under way until over the halfway point of the book. A plague strikes the Middle East, then begins moving into Italy, then into Europe. Anyone who has ever read a plague book or a zombie book will know exactly how this goes – in fact, other than a lack of guns and gore, the book matches up quite well with The Walking Dead. Think how well a quote like this could apply to the heroes of The Walking Dead, or 28 Days Later, or WWZ: “I spread the whole earth out as a map before me. On no one spot of its surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.”


The plague is described as a disease, like flu, but this book was written before germ theory. That means that no one quarantines the sick – instead everyone bands together for safety, and keeps watch over the sick, and hover over dead bodies a lot. No one washes his or her hands. I was overcome with a furious desire to throw bars of soap at everyone. One of the leading ideas about how disease happened at the time when Shelley was writing was that disease spread through ‘miasmas’, basically through bad air. So the steadily dwindling group of survivors travels around in an attempt to escape miasma, wandering into uninfected villages, and insisting that anyone uninfected join the party, which of course means that no one has a chance to escape contamination.


I’m not gonna lie – this book was a slog. I’m glad I read it. I was fascinated by how Shelley wrote about her contemporaries and I was interested in the early science fiction angle. But this book is both flowery in the Romantic style and horribly, horribly depressing. No reviewer is truly impartial, and no doubt I was influenced by the fact that I read this book during the two-week period in which David Bowie died, Alan Rickman died, and a dear friend of mine died. But by any standards, this book is an exercise in exploring the totality and inevitability of loss. With every step Shelley’s hero took, my heart sank lower and lower until I just wanted to climb into bed. The endless need to scream “WASH YOUR HANDS” did not help my reading experience.


So, do I recommend The Last Man? Well, sort of. The writing style is flowery and extravagant, which is not to everyone’s taste today, and the plot is unremittingly depressing. I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it. But from a literary history perspective, it’s fascinating, and many of the passages, especially those about grief, are beautifully written. The panic of Lionel’s wife when her children fall ill is devastating. Lionel’s desperate search through empty villages, and his delusions that maybe someone is left to welcome him, are haunting. The early sense that the rich are hiding in their mansions, believing that they are protected by their money, resonates all too well today. Just be prepared that this is not a light-hearted romp through a romanticized Merry Olde England. As a survivor of countless losses, Mary Shelley paints an all too vivid picture of being the sole survivor of a group that thought itself above all suffering.

Guest Review: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves_Book_CoverOur faithful guest reviewer Heather Thayer got so annoyed about this book that she called me and ranted about it for a solid thirty very entertaining minutes. Here’s her review!

Book Rant: Seveneves – Learning About What Interests Neal Stephenson These Days and Then The STOOPID Takes Over

By Heather Thayer

Last week I asked a good friend if he’d read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. “Is that the book where he spends a hundred pages talking about orbital mechanics?” my friend responded. Why yes, that’s the one. Listen, I like a book that teaches me something on its way to telling a good story. I loved The Martian, which was practically a science textbook from time to time. But in The Martian the science served the story – we needed the science we were being given to be able to follow along with what the main character was doing. We got exactly the amount of science that we needed, and the science made sense within the story. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works with Seveneves. In Seveneves, we are subjected treated to a number of things that Neal Stephenson is apparently really, really interested in, and an unbelievably stupid story is tacked on almost as an afterthought.

I have enjoyed a lot of Neal Stephenson’s books, The Diamond Age and Reamde come to mind, and despite the terrible execution, the premise of Seveneves is interesting.   The moon breaks up. Humans have about two years to figure out how to survive what will end up being the end of life on Earth for five thousand years. Our story follows a group of people who go into space to establish an orbital colony anchored by the International Space Station to maintain life until the earth is habitable again. I love apocalypse stories, so the premise is right up my alley — until the book turns into a treatise on orbital mechanics, the theory of how chains might move in space and how we might use that to “crack the whip” and use chains for acceleration, how to pilot a glider, and a story that relies on inexplicable idiocy to create tension. Repeat.

Here’s what you need to know about orbital mechanics to understand the story – if you want to move to a higher orbit, that will take energy and some kind of propellant. Water or ice could be a propellant. Got it? Good – that’s all you need to follow the story. But Mr. Stephenson goes on for pages and pages and pages of detail (including equations), apparently in an attempt to share with the reader every single thing he discovered in doing his research for the novel. And he does this about a variety of topics, all of which detail is extraneous to the plot. He is especially taken with the behavior of chains and cracking the whip for acceleration– he must have discussed it at least fifty times in this book. I might mention it a few times in this review because it came up so often in the book. Dude – we get it, you found out stuff. But there is such a thing as overshare.

All of this might be somewhat forgivable if the plot and characters held together, but alas, no. The plot is driven by incomprehensible actions, out of character behavior and uneven pacing.


The plot starts going sideways just as life on Earth is ending. The last shuttle sent up to the space station holds (surprise) the President of the United States. This is a problem because all nations on Earth had agreed that no politicians/world leaders would be eligible to go. But here she is, and she immediately starts making trouble. FOR NO REASON AT ALL. We’ve met the President before, and she’s competent and careful. She is described as a moderate who essentially “fell into” the presidency. She shows up on the space station and suddenly she is a manipulative tyrant who is out to cause trouble. This ends in a schism that is ultimately responsible for the deaths of most of the colonists. Why? It makes NO sense and is inconsistent with the character, but that is just the beginning of the ridiculousness.


As mentioned, the machinations of the President result in a schism where many of the colonists go off in a collection of pods (the Swarm), while the people on the space station decide to move the station into a higher orbit with the ultimate goal of landing and settling on one of the larger chunks remaining of the moon. This is a process that will take years. About halfway through the book the two groups go their separate ways and the reader is in complete befuddlement. Why wouldn’t everyone think that sticking together, pooling resources and expertise and finding a permanent home is the only viable way forward? Because that isn’t what happens in the plot, you silly billy. I’m not even going to talk about the tiny group that the President encourages to steal many of the resources and head off to Mars, never to be heard from again. Sound absurd? Yep, it sure does.

We rejoin the story years later as the space station is approaching its destination. There are few survivors on the station (less than thirty), and they have lost the entire human genetic archive that they brought with them, but one of the survivors is a geneticist and they are hopeful that with some genetic manipulation they will be able to perpetuate the human race. On their last pass before the final jump into the higher orbit they are contacted by the remnants of the Swarm. Things haven’t gone well for that group and the few survivors of the Swarm are now ready to rejoin with the station. The two groups hook up, but the survivors from the Swarm attack the space station survivors. Seriously, there are less than forty humans left in the universe and they’re going to spend their resources fighting each other – with guns—in space?

The upshot is bang, bang, bang – they land on a big chunk of the former moon, but now there are only eight survivors, all women, only seven of whom are of childbearing age. Seven Eves. Get it? And now the inanity begins. You thought that the above was dumb? Not even. The stupid is about to explode, and is so aggravating that the only thing that stopped me from throwing the book across the room was that it was on my nice new eReader.

The first daft thing that happens is a pivotal meeting among the survivors: the former President, a sociopath from the Swarm, Malala Yousafsai (with a different name, but it’s her), a Russian soldier and four scientists/specialists from the Station. The geneticist explains that through genetic manipulation she will be able to create viable ovum using the eggs of the women of childbearing age. They start a conversation about whether they should modify the ovum to select for certain traits (I am fine with the premise that all of this is possible – one must suspend disbelief at some point, and it is the future, so fine). As might be expected, the women have different ideas of what the human race should emphasize going forward, but instead of having a calm discussion about this, one of the protagonists – a smart, practical woman who we like – gets a bomb and threatens to set it off in ten minutes unless an agreement is reached. WHAT THE WHAT? Why? Isn’t this a decision that is worthy of some consideration – maybe sleep on it for a night? Does Neal Stephenson think that women are all crazy? This was senseless – even more so because the resolution that is reached under duress is probably the same one that would have been reached after thoughtful debate, so the bomb wasn’t needed as a narrative device to get to a specific result. The group agrees that each mother may choose whatever traits she wishes to emphasize in her own children. Each child will have certain traits chosen by the mother (intelligence, strength, compassion, political acumen etc) and over the years, as the later generations interbreed, it will be a stronger, smarter, more compassionate, politically savvy human race. Makes sense, right?

Whereupon the book inflicts the final indignity of idiocy. We skip forward five thousand years. The descendants of the survivors have thrived using the remnants of the moon to build habitats that orbit the earth, populated by billions of people. However, in five thousand years, the various genetic lines have never interbred – there are seven separate races based on the original seven mothers. Huh? We are supposed to believe that in the early generations, when there was almost no genetic diversity, instead of taking advantage of what little diversity there was, each line only inbred with itself? Most of the mothers (with the exception of the sociopath and the President) were friends and colleagues, so why would their descendants stay separate? No interbreeding, for no discernable reason, and then it stays that way for FIVE THOUSAND YEARS.

I can’t even.wpid-Photo-20141013234900

In addition to the stoopid, the uneven pacing makes the second part of the book almost unreadable. There are hundreds of pages of description of the habitats, the rings, and even more descriptions of chain theory and “cracking the whip” to achieve acceleration.  Yes, we get it Neal – this interests you. Descriptions follow descriptions and world building piles upon world building. Although it is virtually suffocating under the weight of exposition, the story slowly reveals that people did survive on Earth by going underground or under the sea and painfully crawls toward a meeting between the space survivors and the Earth survivors. This was interesting, this was worth exploring, and then I realized that there were only about twenty pages left in the book. We meet the survivors. The end.

I can’t even.