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Friday, September 30, 2011

Adventures in Victorian spec-fic...

I recently got a Smartphone, thanks to the generosity of Father K and Mother K, and one that came pre-installed with a Kindle app. After about two days of playing with the Smartphone, I remembered that, "gee, Amazon lets you download works in the public domain for no money."

At which point I began a downloading binge of (less-than) epic proportions, focusing on obscure or lesser-known public domain books that I'd wanted to try. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey , Melville's The Confidence Man, Welles' The War in the Air and The Sleeper Awakes standing as great examples [I've already read The Confidence Man, but it's short and so clever, I couldn't resist].

I also downloaded Mary Shelley's The Last Man, published about 8 years after Frankenstein, which is supposedly about a plague that wipes out humanity.

Unfortunately, though I doggedly continue reading, I've remembered why Shelley's Frankenstein, unlike Stoker's Dracula, is mostly remembered and enjoyed for the Universal and Hammer adaptations than in the original novel form. It's a problem that extends to this book as well. Mary Shelley spends a lot of time giving her characters looooong speeches about philosophy or their emotional states. She's hardly the only person of her time to have that problem (after all, she was writing for serialization and multi-volume collection), and some of the passages are decent if sentimental. But all the characters in The Last Man sound the same and their moanings and philosophical ruminations distract from a future world that is quite interesting. Unlike with Dickens, who wrote characters you wanted to spend time with even when they were doing very little, or Scott, who would throw lots of adventure and incident into each section, Shelley is rather dull.

I'm not going to claim that Shelley's predictions are accurate. Set around 2086 (in the first volume, which is where I am), she talks about lighter-than-air craft that were only "recently" discovered and seems to view England as economically and technologically about the same. Politically, the British government has abolished the institution of the monarchy (the one point on which Shelley's predictions might seem optimistic to our eyes), though the nobility is a mostly intact and substantial (if gradually waning) political force.

So, if your main criterion for reading sci-fi or judging it is how accurate the predictions are, this probably isn't the book to read. However, in this age of steampunk, it seems to me an interesting and thought-out alternate future Shelley is proposing. Once we get to the actual "everyone's going to die" parts, I'm interested to see what tropes of the disaster/post-apocalyptic genre Shelley anticipates and what tropes she ignores. After all, she lived in a time where plague was a much more real and ever-present threat than ours.

But, oh lord, someone needs to do an abridged or Classics Illustrated version of this story. I guess it makes sense that there's so much blather from the two main male characters that aren't the narrator once you realize they're based on Percy Shelley & Lord Byron (the fact that Lord RAYMOND is an ambitious asshole who gains fame fighting in Greece is a dead giveaway). But still... wanting to write fanfic about your dead husband and his best bro is not a goal that works with a vision of the future undone by a plague.

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