‘m not sure it’s a good sign I really started getting into Shelley’s The Last Man when things started going downhill,
but I had been anticipating a devastating plague followed by an apocalypse since the introduction by Judith Tarr. Quite a while.
Shelley achieves many admirable things in "Volume I," including crafting self-respecting Romantic heroines (and heroes) and painting a hopeful future for a Republic of Britain under Raymond, a complex but essentially militantly heroic character. On that stage the Furies are then released in "Volume II."
Discord strikes at home while a familiar war rages between Greece and Turkey–read: Christian vs. Muslim. Adrian, the former heir to the now abolished throne, shows humanitarian sympathy toward the enemy when he fights alongside Raymond. The narrator’s own experience later shows the fervor of nationalism and military glory overwhelming the veneer of gentility Adrian and Idris so carefully applied to this once rough and wild boy, Verney.
In Volume 2, as Discord is nearly banished, Raymond musters his strength for the final battle–a siege of Constantinople. The heat of Mediterranean summer and the captive city behind its walls loom darkly on the once bright future of Raymond and his small family, who have reunited with him in Greece.
Istanbul, Constantinople, no matter now. It’s a city of the dead, a new stage against which Shelley plots the second Act. She begins to call out familiar names among the list of the dead, starting with Raymond, one of our ephemerally idyllic, "Arcadian shepherds."
Volume 2 hinges around the multiple layers of conflict–interpersonal, international, internal. A marriage collapses from doubt, pride, and miscommunication. A child too soon aware of familial strife feels her fears relieved only to find her father at death’s door. The narrator, at once capable of impetuous error and sacrifice and then given to careful philosophizing, observes his friends and family keenly but continues to participate vigorously with the instinctive joy, anger, and pride of his early days.
Although language and syntax will appear archaic to readers accustomed to reading more recent novels, Shelley’s narrative, guided by Verney’s complicated mix of educated, elevated sentiments and primal emotion, draws the reader through the plot by means of this logical, relentless undertow.
For horror and apocalypse, you’ll just have to join me in reading through to Volume 3. For now, I leave you with one last thought. While reading The Last Man, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle came to mind. His desolate final scenes are proper science fiction, "Ice 9" being the product of a scientist drawn by discovery only to take insufficient precautions after its creation. However, I stand struck by the similar level of curiosity about the workings of "man’s" world and the authors’ portrayals of mankind’s ultimate vulnerability to preventable catastrophe. This Beyond Armageddon title seems a genuine precursor to Cat’s Cradle‘s narrator’s varied insights and Vonnegut’s deeply disturbing novel. He and Shelley have plenty in common.