The late 21st Century. England has gotten rid of its monarchy. Citizens zip from place to place in--wait for it--magnificent balloons! It is truly a brave new world. And yet, in the face of this inestimable progress, there is a threat: a plague from the East, wiping out entire nations, sparing only England, and only for a little while. Eventually, the plague jumps the channel; soon, few are left outside the small circle of Adrian, the Lord Protector, including Lionel Verney, who--as we know, by the dint of his writing the book--will be THE LAST MAN.
Sounds pretty cool, yes? But unfortunately, while Shelley's imagination is again ahead of its time, the prose and plotting of The Last Man are as turgid as Frankenstein. For one, it is the kind of book where every time the narrator alludes to being THE LAST MAN, he writes it in all caps, which reminds me of this Family Guy gag. Second, it's the kind of book where a scheming Countess, thinking she has administered a "sleeping draught" to her daughter to prevent her from marrying Lionel (In the 21st century, we call this a "roofie") leans over the faking girl and cackles:
'Pretty simpleton, little do you think that your game is already at an end for ever.'
But more to the point, it is the kind of book that wastes an interesting premise by devoting its first half to a stuffy political drama about the fate of the newly republican England. As it turns out, the family of the abdicated king still has its partisans, though the presumptive heir, Adrian, is too kind-hearted and generous to pursue a claim to kingship. The protectorate falls to another of Adrian and Lionel's circle, the brash, impetuous Lord Raymond, who is supposedly modeled on Lord Byron, as Adrian is on Shelley's husband, the poet Percy Shelley. If you are into that sort of thing, The Last Man presents an interesting biographical sketch of the two of them.
One thing I did like about The Last Man--sorry, THE LAST MAN--was the way that it seems to support a very conservative ideology that it simultaneously questions and subverts without dismissing completely. For example, though Adrian never becomes king, he does become Protector after Raymond abdicates, and helps to guide England through the plague to the best of his ability. Shelley often places value in birth and status in a way that seems very un-21st century, while suggesting, as in the passage above, that those concepts may ultimately be purposeless. So too with ideas of romantic love and the sublime, which are made to seem vital up until the point at which nothing can be vital any longer. Is Shelley promoting a kind of nihilism, or challenging us to hold even closer to our social and national values in times of great crisis--even in the face of death?
Alas, the book is too tedious to make me want to ponder these questions past THE LAST PAGE.