M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901)
The Book of Revelation isn’t the only part of the Bible that inspires post-apocalyptic fiction — Genesis plays a big part too. The Bible’s story about the beginning of the world has become a popular way to think about the world’s end. Adam and Eve, a paradisiacal Eden, and humanity’s fall get transformed into a last couple, a post-apocalyptic haven, and the forbidden fruit of some unexplored territory or lethal knowledge. What could be called the very first post-apocalyptic novel was explicitly written as a bookend to Genesis. Nathaniel Hawthorne later wrote a replay of Genesis that takes place within the empty remnants of civilization. M.P Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, an overwritten but under-read classic, is also a post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve story: the fall of civilization is brought about by a reach for the unexplored North Pole, and a last couple must consider the moral dilemma of repopulating an empty world.
The Purple Cloud is the first post-apocalyptic novel of the 20th century, but it starts with a throwback, by putting the whole thing within a mystic frame story of the sort employed much earlier by de Grainville and Mary Shelley. Most of the novel consists of the first-person record of the last man as he wrote it down in his notebooks; to get those notebooks in the hands of 20th century readers, Shiel has them dictated by a medium to her physician, who then passes the manuscript on to M.P. Shiel. Finding a plausible explanation for how a future story comes into the hands of present-day readers was a particular concern of 19th century SF writers, but would soon be largely abandoned.
THE NORTH POLE AS FORBIDDEN FRUIT
The mystic thread of the beginning continues through the rest of the story. The lead character (and for most of the book the only one) is named, appropriately, Adam Jeffson, and his entire life he had been a plaything of mysterious offstage forces (whose voices he occasionally hears in his head). As the story opens, he is a young physician with a scheming fiancé who has great ambitions for him. His fiancé appears to play a role in the mystic plan guiding Adam’s life, because she manages, through betrayal and murder, to get Adam a coveted slot on an upcoming expedition to the as-yet unreached the North Pole. (Shiel was writing in 1901 and the North Pole wasn’t reached until seven years later.)
The North Pole is clearly forbidden fruit – before setting out, Jeffson hears a sermon by a fiery Scotch preacher who explains why previous expeditions have failed to reach the Pole:
Wonderfully like “the Tree of Knowledge” in “Eden,” he said, was that Pole: the rest of the earth open and offered to man—but That persistently veiled and “forbidden”; as when a father lays a hand upon his son, with “Not here my child; where you will—not here.”
He doesn’t explain why God wants to keep people from the North Pole, but he does prophesy that the time was near when an Adam was ready to stretch forth his hand to this polar Tree of Knowledge.
The foreshadowing is clear — very little in this book is subtle — and Adam Jeffson becomes the first man to reach the Pole. He is guided by the mysterious fates as he travels with the polar expedition, and one by one, anyone who stands in his way ends up dead. He finally reaches the spot, alone, where he finds a mysterious lake, and in its center, a pillar of ice covered with strange writing. The lake seems to Adam a “substance of a living being,” one that may not have the best intentions towards humanity and which he should never have encountered. Jeffson swoons, and when he wakes up he beats a retreat without looking back.
SOLITARY CONFINEMENT (SPOILER ALERT!)
As was foretold, Adam Jeffson’s moment at the forbidden pole triggers a new fall from grace. As Adam heads back to the expedition’s ship, the dead polar bears are the first sign that something is seriously wrong. As he slowly works his way south to Europe, Adam finds that all life is dead, killed by a purple, cyanic gas that seems to have only spared him.
The bulk of the book is devoted to Adam’s harrowing travels among the dead and his solitary confinement on an empty earth. In his narration, he writes of despair and madness. He goes back home and buries his mother. He travels the world, burns the great cities and gathering all sorts of precious materials to build himself a palace of gold. He dresses in oriental robes and considers himself a sultan. He discovers at last (although it’s been blindingly obvious for a hundred pages) that a series gigantic volcanic eruptions began the very moment Adam reached the pole. These eruptions spewed out the cyanic gases that killed off the world.
Shiel’s logorrheic and morally questionable narrator, who reminds me of the similarly verbose Dr. Martine in Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo, gets mighty tiresome at times. Yet Jeffson, who in many ways is an awful person, is also surprisingly compelling because of the force of his sincerity. The state of the world is mirrored in the state of his mind. Shiel’s novel is one of the best portrayals of the trauma of solitary confinement on an empty planet.
BACK IN THE GARDEN
At last Adam meets his Eve. He finds her in a garden, naked and innocent. She was born almost immediately after the catastrophe and has a remarkable backstory which I won’t reveal, but she knows no language and has lived alone almost her entire life.
After being alone for almost twenty years, Adam is not ready to welcome another person into his domain. He tries to abandon her. He is disturbingly abusive, physically and verbally. But the last woman, whom Adam names Leda, is no pushover. Smart and persistent, she learns to speak English, she learns to read, and she learns to do things for herself.
What terrifies Adam most is falling in love, and inflicting the disease of human society on the world one more time. Adam continues his travels with Leda, but keeps her at arms’ length. He tries to decide whether to kill her or kill himself. In the end… I won’t reveal his final decision.
The Purple Cloud is too long and the drama is at times overwrought. But Shiel wrote one of the most compelling psychological portraits of the Last Man confronting an empty earth and wrestling with the moral question of whether to repopulate it.
Image credits: North Pole web cam view, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, via Wikipedia; The Purple Cloud 1901 edition cover via the Internet Speculative Fiction Database; April 1949 Fantastic Mysteries cover by Lawrence, via Galactic Central; The Purple Cloud 1963 Paperback Library edition by Richard Powers via the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.