The Last Man review

The Last Man is a novel by Mary Shelley first published in 1826. The text is available online from Project Gutenberg under The Last Man by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

the history of the future

The book is set in the late 21st century so it gives us an interesting data point on the history of the future. In 1826 the steam engine had been around for decades but railroads were just starting to spread and long-distance telegraphy had not been invented (the last critical innovation was the electrical relay, 1835). It was only later in the century, when these unprecedented basic advances in transportation and communication were unmistakably changing the world forever, that people realized how much the pace of change had accelerated. The revolutions of 1848 showed that social change was keeping pace, or at least threatening to.

In The Last Man the title character as a boy is a fully traditional shepherd and it’s still normal to travel by horse and sailing ship, though if you’re in a hurry you can go by the new “sailing balloon” with feathered wings. The king of England abdicates in 2073 and a republic headed by a Lord Protector is formed. The politics of the new republic are realistic, with republican, aristocratic, and royalist factions. I imagine the author would have been shocked to see how things actually turned out, with Britain by repeated minor reforms and without ever dissolving royalty becoming more egalitarian than her fictional republic, and much earlier.

comparison with Tennyson

The sailing balloon was a good forecast for the time. A balloon can’t tack into the wind like a sailboat, so power is required and wings were the known way to employ it. Mary Shelley’s image of air travel is more detailed than Tennyson’s famous mention of air travel in “Locksley Hall”, written around five or ten years later. Did Tennyson read The Last Man?

From The Last Man Volume 1. The sailing balloon is mentioned a few other places in the text but described only here. A van is “a wing with which the air is beaten” (Webster’s 1828).

Everything favoured my journey. The balloon rose about half a mile from the earth, and with a favourable wind it hurried through the air, its feathered vans cleaving the unopposing atmosphere. Notwithstanding the melancholy object of my journey, my spirits were exhilarated by reviving hope, by the swift motion of the airy pinnace, and the balmy visitation of the sunny air. The pilot hardly moved the plumed steerage, and the slender mechanism of the wings, wide unfurled, gave forth a murmuring noise, soothing to the sense. Plain and hill, stream and corn-field, were discernible below, while we unimpeded sped on swift and secure, as a wild swan in his spring-tide flight. The machine obeyed the slightest motion of the helm; and, the wind blowing steadily, there was no let or obstacle to our course. Such was the power of man over the elements; a power long sought, and lately won....

Tennyson, “Locksley Hall” lines 119-124. These few lines are the whole mention of air travel.

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

It’s worth mentioning that “Locksley Hall” next touches on democracy, also a topic in The Last Man, and world government, a topic that The Last Man has no interest in.

what it’s about

The novel is about the end of humanity by plague, with attending extreme weather and bizarre sights in the sky (strongly hinting that the plague is astronomical in origin). It’s a dark, dark story about the aloneness of the individual and the impossibility of people all getting along and the uselessness of what we strive for, prestige power wealth knowledge love, everything. Factionalism and fanaticism are singled out for special blasting. Every happy moment or ray of light is written in only to be taken away or to contrast with later despair, until finally there’s a faint note of hope at the very end.

Mary Shelley’s first book Frankenstein was published in 1818 when she was 20 and deserves its fame. Frankenstein is about the greatness of human accomplishment and the danger of overreaching. The Last Man can be seen as the opposite: It is about the puniness of human accomplishment and the inability to make meaningful progress. (So it’s a sign of skill that the past technical advances in Frankenstein still haven’t happened while the future advances in The Last Man happened long ago.) Both books are smart but The Last Man is richer and smarter, showing human failure in every aspect, individual and social, country and city, educated and not, aristocratic and common, political (the republic is no advance over the monarchy), international (war plays a big part), religious (Christianity is no help, distant “Eastern” religions show no better, religious fanatics are outright evil), scientific (the plague, weather events and astronomical events are never explained or understood and the one scientist character is ineffectual), technical (advances are mentioned but none are essential). I see the book as a reaction to the failure of initial progressive ambitions that were awakened after the start of the Industrial Revolution, when more social change started to be seen as possible or needed. The positive view is that it is a call to do better, to hurry up and master the world and ourselves or this is what could happen.


Unfortunately The Last Man is not always well-written and is frequently dull, which makes it seem too long. It panders too much to the taste of its time—which is ironic, since when it came out reviewers panned it. Mary Shelley was pushing the limits of her great ability and sometimes pushed them over and fell down. I can’t recommend it for most people.

But still The Last Man ought to be more influential than it is. It has been virtually unknown for most of its existence, saved by libraries but forgotten by readers. It has big problems but it is still an extraordinary pioneer for the modern science fiction novel. It ought to have been an influence on most end-of-the-world books since then, and I doubt Nevil Shute ever heard of it.

Original version, December 2012. Updated and added here the same month.