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Last Man

Entry updated 13 May 2024. Tagged: Theme.

For the past two centuries and more, the vast majority stories featuring human beings to whom the term "last man" can be applied are in fact men; several early tales and novels incorporate that circumstance into their titles (see examples immediately below), and in not a few of these tales a "last woman" is met, in time for the race to continue. For these historical reasons, this entry has not been renamed Last Human. The notion of the Last Man left alive on Earth (see End of the World; Holocaust) has a long history. Early treatments, often in verse, include Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville's The Last Man: or, Omegarus and Syderia: A Romance in Futurity (1805; trans 1806); Lord Byron's "Darkness" (1816); "The Last Man" (1823), a poem by Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) which inspired John Martin's mezzotint "The Last Man" (1826); The Last Man (1826), an operatic scena by William H Callcott (1807-1882); "The Last Man" (1826), a poem by Thomas Hood (1799-1845); Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826); and M P Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901). The theme has an enduring power: "Time Enough at Last", a well-loved 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone (based on the short story "Time Enough at Last" [January 1953 If] by Lyn Venable), shows the Last Man after nuclear Holocaust happily planning to read all the books for which he never had time – only to break his only pair of glasses. William Tenn's "The Custodian" (November 1953 If) offers an unusually tranquil, even optimistic, take on the situation. A Last Woman rather than the usual Last Man is central to Susan Ertz's Woman Alive (1935).

When Last Man encounters Last Woman, the Adam and Eve scenario is likely to follow. Examples are numerous: Fredric Brown's "Knock" (December 1948 Thrilling Wonder) includes as its setup the ultra-short Last Man sf or horror story whose two sentences are: "The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door ..." Sherwood Springer's "No Lad of Nod" (December 1952 Thrilling Wonder) has a father and daughter as sole survivors; Richard Wilson's "Mother to the World" (in Orbit 3, anth 1968, ed Damon Knight) has a man and a retarded, child-minded woman. The Cliché of the Last Couple twists into black comedy in Damon Knight's "Not With a Bang" (Winter/Spring 1950 F&SF) and Alfred Bester's "They Don't Make Life Like They Used To" (October 1963 F&SF).

Being a literal Last Man in a world of women – as in "The Last Man on Earth" (November 1923 Munsey's Magazine) by John D Swain, filmed as Last Man on Earth (1924) directed by John G Blystone – is one of sf's more embarrassingly adolescent male fantasies, and is identified as such in an segment of Alfred Bester's "5,271,009" (March 1954 F&SF; vt "The Starcomber" in Starburst, coll 1958) – which with genial Satire debunks several other Last Man wish-fulfilment scenarios. A serious Comics treatment of this subtheme is Y: The Last Man (60 episodes September 2002-March 2008) by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra.

In Eric Frank Russell's "Mana" (December 1937 Astounding), an Immortal Last Man refuses to end his own life until he has succeeded in Uplifting ants. The insight of Alfred Bester's womanless Post-Holocaust story "Adam and No Eve" (September 1941 Astounding) is that the Last Man's own body can provide the necessary organic resources to restart Evolution. John Brunner presents an identical solution in "The Windows of Heaven" (May 1956 New Worlds as "Two by Two"; vt in No Future in It, coll 1962), and Isaac Asimov repeats the theme in "Founding Father" (October 1965 Galaxy). James White's Second Ending (June-July 1961 Fantastic; 1962 dos) develops a roughly similar situation at some length, using periods of Suspended Animation to allow his Last Man repeated glimpses of the patient recreation of Earth's biosphere by Robots.

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954) centres on the Last Man in a world where everyone else has undergone Biological change into Vampires. In the television comedy Red Dwarf (1988-current), the Last Man (after seven billion years in Suspended Animation) is similarly surrounded by not-quite-humans: a sentient Computer, a Robot, an Uploaded former human and a humanoid evolved from our hero's pet cat.

A relevant theme anthology is The Last Man on Earth (anth 1982) edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh. [DRL]

see also: Herbert Best; Peter Crowcroft; Ronald Duncan; Horace Horsnell; Hungary; Bernard Malamud; Wilhelm Lamszus; Guido Morselli; Arno Schmidt.

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