Archive for the 'science fiction' Category

Ursula Le Guin: Malafrena

September 4, 2017

416GC-gCGbL._AC_US218_This is a curious novel, a work of historical fiction from a master of science fiction, set in an imagined country, Orsinia, which is clearly in Central or Eastern Europe, and blends elements of several countries. It’s set in the early nineteenth century; it was once an independent kingdom, but has come under the autocratic sway of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, a fictional setting with a background of real events, against which canvas she develops her characters, their philosophies and their lives.

And yet: the same issues as are revealed in her science fiction are revealed in Malafrena, and are explored: individual freedom, individual autonomy, how to respond to power, and what can one person hope to achieve? What is possible? The same questions confront her characters in this novel as face the characters in her utopian novel The Dispossessed; the difference is that in Orsinia they discover how they are circumscribed by realpolitik, whereas there is the chance, in the more open setting of Anarres and Urras, that a different way of doing things, of being, can be explored and developed.

It’s an unnerving novel, I found, because so often it seems disarming. A series of apparently insignificant encounters and conversations a lot of the time, but charged with more power and more significance as connections are made, both in the tale itself and in the reader’s mind. At times there seem to be too many characters to keep track of, at time’s it’s infuriating how a strand of the story I found interesting was just dropped, characters fell off the page: the vastness of the canvas underlines individual insignificance in the face of world events, perhaps? And we know, because of history, that the collective will for change that bursts forth across Europe in 1830 will not succeed, so the author’s purpose must be leading us in other directions: what is real happiness? what do we really want? what would really make the world a better place?

At various points I found a contrast being drawn out, between a young man who thinks that revolution is possible and will make a better world, and an old man who has tried, and who thinks, maybe knows that it’s not possible, it’s not what he had imagined it would be like. There’s something Conradian in either the futility of revolution, or the ways in which revolution warps itself by taking on a life of its own…

And it’s a very good novel, too: once I’d stopped trying to categorise and tame it in my mind and just went with the flow, as it were. I shall certainly come back to it, and soon. This edition appends a series of short stories with the same setting – the Orsinian Tales, but at various different time-points in history, which helps solidify and imaginary place, if that makes sense, and is surely a forerunner of Le Guin’s vast Ekumen, the organisation of worlds across the universe in which her Hainish stories are set. Again, the big ideas are to the fore, and the format allows her to explore many possibilities from many angles. Here is a writer who I think is still underestimated.

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On recommendations

July 30, 2017

Do you ever get the feeling you don’t have enough time to read? Surely not…

I found myself reflecting on this because I realised how few of friends’/acquaintances’ suggestions and recommendations of books I should read I actually follow through, and also realised it hadn’t always been like this. So a brief check through my reading journal (which I’ll write about tomorrow) showed that, since the start of last year I’ve read two books recommended by my wife, two recommended by friends (and one of these books I didn’t really enjoy) and one recommended by my mother (we often swap travel writing, which we both enjoy) – out of a total of almost a hundred books read. Any other choices have been books waiting on my shelves, books suggested by others I’ve read, or have been suggested by book reviews in the press.

Back in my school and student days, when I suppose I was beginning to read seriously, friends and colleagues recommended books all the time and I devoured their suggestions; we swapped books all the time and discussed them, often at length; at university we studied them. And one of the inevitable results of that has been the development of ever more refined (picky?) personal tastes and preferences: in my sixties, I know what I like, and I’m far more reluctant to stray out of familiar paths… That initial, enthusiastic swapping, talking and recommending fostered and encouraged the growth of my own likes and dislikes: no logic, rhyme or reason to it, and it’s what got me to where I am today: why else did I reject the study of history at school, and classics at university, and go on to read English and French Literature, later on specialising in twentieth century literature and science fiction?

I suppose this is inevitable, and we could say much the same about musical tastes, choices about travelling, even work: we get to know ourselves, or construct ourselves perhaps, and settle into …ruts.

If you’ve read a few of my posts you’ll know the mix: some fiction, usually European, often translated, some science fiction, detective fiction, a lot of travel writing, some history. There’s a lot that’s missing, and that I see other bloggers who I follow, writing about – women’s writing, poetry, modern British or American fiction for starters. Pressed for an answer as to why I don’t read very much of those kinds of writing, the simple answer is ‘I don’t have the time’; it’s not an answer I’m that happy with, and there’s a stick-in-the-mud there somewhere. The only new genre I’ve taken on board in the last twenty years is travel writing, and that has been a marvellous discovery, thought-provoking and enriching.

My friends don’t recommend boring stuff; quite often a recommendation is a response to my talking about something I’ve read recently or an interest that we share, and yet it’s only occasionally that I’ll actually take up a suggestion. I have so many books I know I’ll never get around to re-reading (which helps with the occasional clear-out), so many books waiting to read, and increasingly there are books I know I would like to read but will never get around to, so I don’t bother buying them…

James Blish: A Case of Conscience

July 15, 2017

51pvowfQhAL._AC_US218_ (1)Occasionally a senior moment – or too many books – leads me to buy a book I already have in my library. Something recently prompted me to read this, so it duly went onto my list of books to look for. But a nagging thought sent me to my database, and, lo and behold, I already had a copy, last read over thirty years ago…

It’s an interesting novel from almost sixty years ago. Contact has been made, and humans have visited, intelligent life on another planet. As always, the scientific details of how FTL flight works have to be vaguely explained, the reader has to be blinded with science; what our world is like in the year 2049 has to be guessed at, and the longer that elapses since the novel was written, the more outlandish it seems: humans still recording messages and data on tape?

The moral dilemma at the centre of the novel is faced by a Jesuit priest, who is a biologist and one of the first four humans to visit the planet Lithia with a remit from the UN to recommend what the nature of human interaction with the inhabitants should be. Unfortunately, the technologically advanced Lithians are incapable of anti-social acts and behaviour; they are good because it is logical and natural to them to behave thus. And they have no religion or concept of God. From our Jesuit’s perspective therefore, they must be a creation of the evil one (because it removes the necessity of God from the picture) – Satan – to test the human race; by making such a judgement he falls into the Manichaean heresy, allowing creative power to the forces of evil, and must face the consequences of this. His recommendation, that the planet be quarantined forever from contact with humans, seems logical to us nowadays, but he is out-manoeuvred by those who would exploit its resources, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

All sorts of complex issues are raised in this novel, including that of whether the hero’s moral judgements are inevitably flawed because limited by his own earthly perspective. Sadly, I feel Blish loses focus in the later parts of the novel, where a Lithian is raised on Earth and causes chaos and mayhem through the contradictions between his Lithian heritage and its interaction with flawed (fallen?) humanity: it’s harder to see what the writer intends us to focus on, unless it is the complexity of any interaction with an alien species. Where are the possible points of contact and understanding? For me, the theological strand was the only really interesting one, the moral, cultural and social questions being rather more run-of-the-mill.

Well worth a read: I’m not aware of much good quality, thought-provoking SF from the fifties, but this one certainly woke me up.

Dystopia time again

March 28, 2017

51VHe12RxJL._AC_US218_Margaret Atwood’s novel has been clearly on the radar ever since it was first published, but is making waves again since the election of D Trump in the US, and is due to appear as a TV series next month. I’ve also spent a year or so working on a study guide to the text, for sixth form students, which has recently been published. There was a film made by the German director Volker Schlondorff in 1990, but it’s a film that’s better passed over because of its gratuitous change to the ending of the novel.

So I’ve been reflecting on twentieth century dystopias more generally; Atwood’s novel for me sits alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and the three novels all have pertinent things to say about the current state of the world, from radically different perspectives. To many of us, the present situation in the UK and in the US verges on the alarming – or am I being too cautious? – and revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden among others only increase our feelings of paranoia.

51OG8UQrofL._AC_US218_Orwell’s new-found relevance is obvious, with the huge growth in surveillance, both by the state and other organisms, of all citizens, made easier by the development of the web and mobile technology, and justified by authority in the name of security against terrorist threats. Smart TVs now do perform the functions of Big Brother’s telescreens, your mobile will reveal your location, and everything you do online is likely to be logged somewhere… and yet the state does not need to stamp out dissidence in the way Orwell imagined – a boot stamping on a human face, forever – because Huxley’s vision coincides, and has made such violence redundant.

51VS8inU1TL._AC_US218_Huxley’s future is even more sinister, in many ways, because based on hedonism: offer humans pleasure, through sex and drugs, and you can render them passive slaves, incapable of rebellion because they are totally uninterested. It’s hard not to feel that in some ways and in some places this is already happening: alcohol is cheap, recreational drugs are available, sex is a commodity to many, and there are so many shiny shiny consumer durables to distract and use up one’s money, before being thrown away and replaced – ending is better than mending! One learns that there are so many people who cannot conceive of being without their mobile phone or online 24/7, and who are totally uninterested in any security threat or monitoring of their lives via these desirable devices.

The fact that I can still say that Atwood offers a gender perspective on current dystopian trends feels patronising at the same time as its truth underlines the still-existing inequalities in what some would have us believe is a post-feminist age. Perhaps her vision is sharper viewed from the USA where the fundamentalist Christian right wing is still hell-bent on restricting access to reproductive rights and maternity leave; some of the language used and the proposals made by various public figures recently have been truly shocking. In Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, after the right-wing coup, women have been openly objectified and commoditised, under the guise of freeing them from the worst aspects of their lives now. And, of course, it’s men who have been kind enough to do this. All in the name of religion, too. It will be interesting to see what aspects are foregrounded in the TV series; Atwood said at the time of the novel’s publication that she wrote of nothing that wasn’t either happening or possible already – back in 1985. She didn’t let men, religion or feminists off the hook…

It’s worth comparing how the three novels are differently presented, too: Orwell offers a traditional narrative, but filtered brilliantly through his invented language Newspeak, which shapes the alternative facts for the regime, Huxley offers a non-linear, modernist narrative, jigsaw-like in places, but Atwood is probably most original and experimental. Offred’s narrative is her mind, her consciousness and her emotions, fragmented like her life was before, and is in the new times; it has both a dream-like (nightmare-like?) quality as well as an immediacy which bring us up short. Atwood allows her to revel in words and language, to ask sharp questions, and to shock us…

Here we have three very powerful novels, more relevant today than they have been for some years: we should read, reflect and let them inform our conversations and actions. Here’s your essay title:

Which of these three novels do you think is most relevant to 2017? Justify your choice.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

March 1, 2017

51c3yuum9ll-_ac_us218_51sf-9svtul-_ac_us218_No, I haven’t had access to an early copy – I wish! I’m really looking forward to when this comes out in the autumn, and hope that it doesn’t take five years for the whole trilogy to be published, like the last one did. I can’t wait to read more of Pullman‘s ideas, to revisit the people and places he invented, to read another story from a real master…

I am now well into the final volume of the Dark Materials trilogy again; I’m listening to it in the car as I travel, and the full version, narrated by Philip Pullman himself, is marvellous, though it’s hard to stop myself picking up the books in the house and racing on with the story. So, what’s actually so good about it?

What has always struck me is the depth and the detail, both of the plot and the structure, of the trilogy, its time and scope, which equals the ambitiousness of Milton when he set out to write an epic that would outdo all those of the past, and took as his theme the creation of the world, the Fall and Man’s redemption, in Paradise Lost. And the parallels with Milton’s story are evident. Milton was a master and an inventor of language, and so is Pullman, though in different ways. Both writers invent unseen, imagined worlds and describe and populate them.

But it’s where Pullman goes with his ideas that has always fascinated me, through my several readings and listenings. In Milton’s version, the Fall is a good thing, a felix culpa, because it allows something far greater, in Christian theological terms, which is Christ’s sacrifice of himself to redeem humanity from its fallen condition. But Milton also has a problem, which is that Satan comes across as the hero of his poem, not intentionally, not deliberately, but nevertheless inevitably: the angels in heaven are dull and boring, and we know that the omnipotent God is going to come out tops, so there’s no narrative suspense there. In Paradise, Adam and Eve are as dull as dust, dutifully spouting a party line as they do the pruning and talk with the animals. The sex is boring, too. As humans, stasis is not our natural condition.

Some fundamentalist Christians have ranted and railed against what Pullman has suggested in his trilogy, which to me seems to be that it’s precisely through the Fall that we are human as we now recognise ourselves to be, that being fallen makes us what we are. Religion and authority limit and restrict us, attempt to deny us our full potential. In other words, our fallen condition is often pretty good fun and we enjoy it. And Will and Lyra re-enact that Fall, joyfully, unashamedly.

The issue, I think, is a similar one to that raised by Aldous Huxley in his challenging novel Brave New World, way back in the 1930s. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach that novel a number of times, and students’ reaction to the world Huxley visualised in AF 632 was very interesting: many very much liked the idea of living in it; others were appalled. In our discussions of the novel, we edged towards the discovery, not that there was anything wrong per se with the hedonistic life of that world, but that its inhabitants were not actually human as we understood the term. We are back to the old trope of innocence and experience: we prefer the ‘experienced’ world, and it’s just as well, since turning the clock back is not an option.

Both Milton and Pullman raise all sorts of philosophical and theological questions for us to consider, not to fear: what sort of a God tests his creatures thus? and punishes them thus? What is the origin of evil in the world, given that everything in existence was created from nothing by a supposedly good God, including the seeds of evil? The Cathars had a different answer from the Catholic Church, and the idea of free will is all very well, but is not a complete answer, if you think about it more deeply. If I have a faith, it is one which encourages me to think deeply, to be myself, to work and struggle towards what to believe in; it does not give me easy answers. I’m really excited to see where else Pullman will take us with his stories and ideas… roll on autumn.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars

February 20, 2017

519dthny83l-_ac_us218_I’d been quite looking forward to reading the Mars series for a good while, and I finally got started…now I’m not so sure. It’s certainly a very ambitious work (and I’ve only read the first part so far) but what does Robinson actually want the book to be – political treatise, detective story, travelogue around another planet, Swiss Family Robinson on Mars? – it’s all of these at different times, and none of them very well at all, at least to this reader.

There’s plenty of hard SF – if you like that sort of thing – about terraforming planets and building space elevators, and some thought given to the politics, psychology and ideology of a major human effort like colonising Mars. It all comes from a rather limited US perspective, at least to this European reader. There’s a compelling enough story about the clashes of personalities and approaches to colonising a planet, which draws the reader forward, though with a tendency to skim at times.

My biggest gripe, and it’s not one that I’d direct at this novel alone but at an awful lot of SF, is the poor characterisation. And I know one might say I’m a bit spoilt with the kind of ‘softer’ SF that I tend to prefer, and that I’d be bound to notice failings in this area. Robinson’s characters (he starts off with a hundred of them, the first group of colonists selected, which isn’t a terribly good idea in itself, I fear) are sketchy, some more than others, but some just random and interchangeable names at times, making the novel as hard to follow as a Russian classic. It’s hard to care about most of them, as they exist to serve the plot, and are picked up and dropped willy-nilly as the story unfolds. It’s all very well to say, but this is hard SF, this is a novel of ideas, but that’s not good enough when the genre is nearly a century old, it’s actually very frustrating. And I could get side-tracked into questions of genre, and science-fiction as literature, which I researched and wrote theses about years ago, but I won’t.

The one main point that I latched on to, that I think the writer does explore well, is just how difficult it is (will be?) for humans anywhere to escape their past, not so much their biology and physiology as their conditioning and their ideology, which lead to political and military conflict wherever humans go, and are reproduced with drastic consequences even on another planet. This pessimistic strand is quite well explored, and gave me pause to think…

In the end, I think that there’s just too much material Robinson wants to cram in, too much time and too many events and so the key elements of any story, and in particular characterisation, are just spread too thin. But it’s a compelling enough page-turner and I’ll probably read the rest when I find then in a second-hand shop, but there’s no real rush…

My A-Z of Reading: T is for Time

December 18, 2016

Time is one of those subjects writers have plenty to say about, even if it’s only the now tired old ‘carpe diem’ trope of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistris. I suspect humans are the only species for whom time is actually a thing, given that we can notice and measure its passage, and feel imprisoned by it because of our own mortality; if we weren’t, would we want to become Swift’s Struldbrugs? I think not…

I’m not sure when writers first woke up to the idea of time travel, though HG Wells may actually have been the first, sending his traveller first of all some 800,000 years into the future to see humanity separated into two distinct species – I’m starting to think that may happen rather sooner – and then untold millions of years to look upon the death of the planet in that haunting scene on the seashore. Wells’ idea was a good one and has been reworked marvellously by Christopher Priest in The Space Machine, and by Ronald Wright in A Scientific Romance, both of which I recommend highly.

Other writers have sought to imagine eternity for us, insofar as that is possible for us humans. James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus reduced to a quivering wreck confronted by the prospect of eternal damnation for his sins after a hellfire sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man. There is the picture of the walls of hell four thousand miles thick, and the grains of sand on the seashore, each as a year counted off, and making not a pinprick on the aeons of torment: scary stuff. Arthur C Clarke (The City and the Stars) creates a future world where we are a thousand million years in the future, and everyone is randomly regenerated from time to time by the computer that runs the world. And then there is Olaf Stapledon’s masterpiece from the 1930s – Last and First Men – which gradually takes the human race further and further into the future, through various races of man and moves to other planets, before the end must come when the sun dies: our own petty concerns and memories are cruelly shrunk to nought by the stupendous weight of the years counted off.

And then there are the writers who somehow manage to make us see just how we are imprisoned by time and our own humanity. After their epic adventures in his Northern Lights trilogy, which take them through many worlds, Will and Lyra, still just teenagers, find love (and for me, Philip Pullman does this convincingly) before they must be separated for ever in their own different though parallel universes, doomed to remember each other annually on their bench in the Oxford Botanical Garden. It’s only fiction, but for me a truly painful or tragic ending…

Hermann Hesse shows us, in the masterly Narziss and Goldmund, the two characters, friends, reflections of each other, complementary parts of the same person in so many ways, separated from each other by their very different paths and choices in their lives and equally drawn back to each other numerous times, until one must see the other die…

And once again, I’m brought back to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: the young Adso and the older, wiser William and their adventure together, in that mediaeval world where you can be separated from someone and never hear about them or from them again, which is what happens, of course. And the bond between them remains for Adso right to the very end of his long life, when he tells his story and looks back on the woman he slept with once, magically, all those years ago and still wonders about…

Writers can make us feel, remind us of the pain of being human, in the days, the memories and the people we can know and must leave behind one day (or who must leave us behind). They can do this with invented characters and with words, which for me has always been one of the real wonders of literature, right from when, as a child, I reached the end of The Wind in the Willows, and with a great pang, wondered to myself, ‘and what did they all do then?’

On not reading fantasy

August 26, 2016

I’m not really a reader of fantasy. I devoured Lord of the Rings forty years ago; it took me two days while I had ‘flu, and I’ve never been tempted to go back to it. I really enjoyed Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (back when it was only a trilogy) but again, haven’t been tempted to revisit. I’ve just read Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind which was recommended and lent to me. It got me thinking: what have I got against fantasy?

As stories, they’re fine – they draw you along, you want to know what’s going to happen. The characters are inevitably interesting, because they bear little resemblance to reality: you never know what you’re going to get, and verisimilitude isn’t high on the list of fantasy writers. Although they can be a bit thin or wooden at times, if truth be told. It’s a similarity fantasy shares with science-fiction: characterisation has never been a strongpoint. Places and settings are interesting, too, though for some reason almost inevitably mediaeval. A setting in some imaginary, yet at the same time recognisable past, helps sustain an air of mystery – those days are so long ago that not everything can be known…a time of potions and poisons and spells and superstitions. However, because the world is so different from our own, alien if you like, many things about it require lengthy explanations, just as various elements of utopias do; this explaining can be interestingly or tiresomely done.

Ultimately, I think that it’s the lack of any anchor in reality as I know it that lessens my interest. This may seem strange given my penchant for SF, which I’ve blogged about before, but it bears thinking about. Science fiction does have links to our actual existing world. It may connect on the technological level, but moving us a few years into the future. It may speculate, or extrapolate from current events and issues, considering possible futures for us and our world. It may even attempt to visualise a utopia, and how such a state may be attained.

Fantasy allows itself a much freer rein: there will be a world, which in some ways bears a physical resemblance to our own, in that it will have human beings of a sort, though perhaps endowed with powers which do not exist on our world; it will have families, houses, towns and villages just as we do, and flora and fauna, though again these may or may not be the ones we know: they can be invented quite freely just for difference’ sake… Inevitably there will be conflicts, though conducted with weapons we may not recognise, and against all kinds of unrecognisable foes. Because the world is mediaeval, heroes (of the ancient kind) are possible.

Is there something wrong with me, that I cannot or do not want to cope with so many unknowns? Or is it, more likely, just force of habit, reading patterns developed and honed over a lifetime, that have no place for fantasy in the same way that they have no room for Mills and Boon? Perhaps I cannot empathise sufficiently with characters and situations too far from my own experience. I do need to care in some way about the people in the stories I read, and for that to happen, there need to be some connections with me and my world. Perhaps I’m saying that for me, reading serves a different purpose?

I can’t claim that I don’t like my literature to be escapist, when I can immerse myself in detective fiction, or science fiction. And yet, I don’t choose to read fantasy. What is going on?

To be continued…

The end of the world

August 12, 2016

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is, I suggested in my last piece, possibly the first disaster novel. I found myself wondering why it should appear at that particular moment, why she should come to consider the prospect of something more powerful than humankind bringing our species to its end.41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_

H G Wells did something similar when he faced the world with Martians in The War of the Worlds; humanity was saved not by our efforts or powers but by microbes. M P Shiel considered the destruction of the human race in The Purple Cloud near the beginning of the twentieth century. But it’s only really since the invention and first use of nuclear weapons that the apocalyptic novel has come into its own.51qfsKHY-yL._AC_US160_51gGBhD5N6L._AC_US160_

And Shelley’s novel is different in another way: she kills off all of humanity bar one: Verney is the last man and has the two final chapters of the book to try and begin to come to terms with this; even Shiel’s hero, if my memory serves me correctly, eventually finds a companion, of the opposite sex, too, so that all can begin again. But to be the last one? Of course, never to be certain, too, for in the vastness of the world how could a single man ever check the entire rest of the planet to be sure? Why would one waste time and sanity searching?

There is a power and an attractiveness in the concept, surely, as Shelley realises, for every reader can and surely will substitute her/himself for the hapless hero of her novel: what would we do in the circumstances? Where would we go? Would we travel or settle? How might we retain our sanity? At the end of the novel, Verney sets off in his little boat to circumnavigate the Mediterranean, clinging for safety to the coastline, hoping against hope that he might meet someone…

When I was teaching, there was a novel (written for teenage readers) by Robert O’Brien called Z for Zachariah, about a young girl who is perhaps the only survivor of a nuclear and biological war which destroys the USA, apart from her small valley with its own isolated microclimate which protects her from fallout and the rest: she must survive on her own, and the focus is on the practicalities of this, a factor which occurs not at all to Mary Shelley: everything in her novel is there for the taking… In class we would explore for a while the logistics of survival – water, food, clothing, shelter, health and sanity, and whether it would all be worthwhile; we had some very interesting discussions; no two classes ever reacted in the same way, and there were many interesting and creative responses to the end of O’Brien’s novel.51YZEEACBYL._AC_US160_

There is wonderful material for fantasy in the idea that one could have the whole world to oneself: choice of house or home, country; one could go anywhere and help oneself to anything one needed, indulging oneself materially, at least. One could go on an orgy of destruction as did Shiel’s hero… and one would have, in the end, to face the same question as did Defoe’s isolated hero with only a small island for his home: what is the point of it all? Defoe’s hero turns to his God for help and reads his Bible – which of course he rescued from the wreck – nowadays we, I think, are probably more likely to revel in playing God in such circumstances…

Mary Shelley: The Last Man

August 12, 2016

41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_I think this is the fourth time I’ve read or listened to this strangely compelling novel. It’s so much better than Frankenstein, more leisurely paced, with more ideas and more complex characters, though still painfully overblown in the romantic strain in places. But what fascinates me most is that, as far as I’m aware, it’s the first ‘end of the world as we know it’ novel in history. (Do correct me if you know different!)

The Last Man is set in the closing decades of our current century, and ranges widely through different and challenging ideas: the future of England and how it is to be ruled, and its eventually becoming a republic when the heir to the throne steps down (though Parliament eventually votes him Lord Protector), and then the gradual disappearance of humanity with the world ravaged by seven successive years of bubonic plague.

The central characters are a group of friends centred around the ex-royal family of England and their associates; there are also various intermarriages and children, and we follow their lives, happinesses and ultimate fates over quite a lengthy period of time, which allows Shelley to develop real characters, feelings and attitudes.

As with any attempt to see far into the future, she too has problems, particularly with technology. She was looking two hundred and fifty years into the future, and yet cannot conceive of the world itself as radically different politically from her own time, so Greece’s attempts to achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire still figure prominently in the 2050s, while we hear very little of ‘the Americas’, and a love of Italy still looms large, as it did in the late eighteenth century. England is pictured as a relatively prosperous, if not semi-utopian land, and yet Shelley cannot conceive of any kind of industrial or technological progress, which surprises me, since she imagined Frankenstein’s experiments and achievements: travel is still largely by horse (when people actually need to travel), although apparently there are some Montgolfier balloon-type airships for use when speed is required, or in case of emergency. Otherwise we might well still be in 1800… England is not an industrial nation – nowhere is.

But, of course, it’s not hard science she’s interested in here, in contrast to Frankenstein; she is considering humanity under threat from an unseen enemy – plague. Medicine does not seem to have made any advances in the intervening centuries either, so the disease sweeps all before it, and all that it’s possible to do is manage the catastrophe and the depopulation. There are episodes of great heroism and also cowardice as the inevitable end approaches; the last band of 1500 English people set off for better climes in Europe, but give way to rivalries and are beset by religious mania; eventually we come to focus on the last four survivors, and then finally there is one, all alone.

I make it seem rather banal, describing it baldly thus, whereas Shelley does make us care about her characters and their fates, and does get us thinking about humanity’s reaction to total calamity; it is a compelling tale, and even the overwritten, hectically gushing and romantic sections where our emotions are wrung out in search of a response, do not diminish the overall effect of what is a rather neglected classic. Verney, the last man, writes his farewell to the world at the turn of the year 2100 at the top of the dome of St Peter’s in Rome, and then sets off into his unknown. Powerful stuff.

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