John Ames Mitchell’s The Last American (1889)
Images of a run-down Statue of Liberty against a backdrop of decaying New York are a staple of science fiction. So are visions of a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. As I’ve noted before, the fascination with ruin porn dates back to at least the late 18th century. But America was a backwater at the time – the New World (or the Western presence there anyway) was too new to ruin in futuristic visions. The very first work of science fiction set against a backdrop of ruined, major U.S. cities, as far as I can find, is the brief 1889 satire, The Last American: A fragment from the journal of KHAN-LI, Prince of Dimph-yoo-chur and Admiral in the Persian Navy, by the original publisher of LIFE magazine, John Ames Mitchell.
The book, as the title indicates, is presented as an excerpt from the journal of a Persian Naval admiral, who with his crew stumbles into New York’s harbor 1000 years after America’s demise in 1990. The Persians, who have mocking names like Nofuhl , Lev-el-Hedyd, and Ad-el-pate, comment on the follies of the lost civilization, while they themselves are portrayed as superstitious primitives who make the ancient “Mehrikans” look good by comparison. The Last American reads like a very mediocre Mark Twain — A Connecticut Yankee, published the same year, leaves Mitchell’s book in the dust. Nevertheless, Mitchell, who was surely influenced by After London, made an important contribution to the genre: satire. Continue reading
Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885)
Gothic and Romantic writers — like Cousin de Grainville, Lord Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, and most significantly, Mary Shelley — wrote the first important End of the World fiction early in the 19th century. But as Romanticism waned, the nascent genre languished for half a century, until it came roaring back with a new wave of future fiction that occurred during the last few decades of the century. Alongside various utopias (Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887), dystopias (Caesar’s Column), and future war stories (Battle of Dorking), post-apocalyptic fiction became popular among writers in Britain, France, and America. The familiar genre images of the primitive society, the wasted city, the ruined Statue of Liberty, the cataclysmic new ice age, and the barren, Dying Earth, was all there in the best-selling, futuristic fiction at the end of the 19th century. The genre has been popular ever since.
The first post-apocalyptic novel of this new wave of future fiction was Richard Jefferies’ 1885 After London. As we all know, End of the World fiction is most often about the end of the world as we know it and its aftermath — not about the utter extinction of humans or the complete destruction of life on earth. Earlier Romantic writers were an exception; they really did deal with the utter end of the world. But After London is about the survivors and the transformed world they’ve inherited. Continue reading
Edgar Allen Poe’s The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion (1839)
The word “apocalypse” not only means a cataclysm that ends the current world order, but also, from the word’s Greek root, a revelation of truth. Poe’s very short story about the End of the World is an apocalypse in both senses of the word. In this early instance of the cataclysmic-collision-with-celestial-object tale, Poe makes an odd mix of science and prophesy to capture the moment of “the speculative Future merged in the august and certain Present.” “Eiros and Charmion” shows us what happens when the unknown becomes the dramatically revealed known.
The story starts with Eiros waking up to the startling realization that the afterlife is real, and that he (or she — Poe doesn’t say) is in it. His old friend Charmion, who died ten years earlier, is there to welcome him, happy to see Eiros “looking life-like and rational.” Charmion informs Eiros that their earthly names have been discarded, and that tomorrow he’ll induct his friend “into the full joys and wonders of your novel existence.” Continue reading
Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826)
Not all post-apocalyptic fiction is about death. That might seem odd, given the high death toll in this genre. But most of it is about something else, like nature, war, technology, civilization, or even religion. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is an exception: it is a book about death.
And death is what saves it from being just another 19th century door-stopper, doomed to bore contemporary readers. Shelley did what, as far as I know, no other writer in the genre has done. She turned her personal grief into the End of the World. In the Last Man, the deaths of her husband, her children, and her friends are transformed into the complete extinction of the human species. Continue reading
Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s The Last Man (1805)
Long-time readers know I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction, because it reveals so much about our feelings toward science and its place in civilization. Science mediates between us and nature; in modern civilization, we rarely encounter the raw power of nature without science’s buffering effects.
But are we like the sorcerer’s apprentice, putting the world at risk by playing with powers that are out of our league? Have we used science to truly transcend nature’s casual brutality, or are we just kidding ourselves? How much does our own human nature depend on the scientific underpinnings of civilization, and what happens when science’s support is yanked away — will it be Mad Max-style battling warlords, or pastoral communities in tune with nature’s rhythms, as in Earth Abides?
In End of the World fiction, the answers to these questions are all over the map, and that’s why this genre is so awesome.
I’ve already covered post-apocalyptic SF from the 40’s and 50’s, but it’s time to go back to the beginning of the genre, with the very first book that you could call a Dying Earth science fiction novel: The Last Man, by the French priest Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville. Published in 1805, it’s a bizarre rewrite of the Book of Revelations as futuristic Gothic novel, filled with temples, spirits, visions, and trans-Atlantic airships. Continue reading