In 1818, Mary Shelly simultaneously set the stage for both horror and science fiction with her debut novel, Frankenstein. Then, not content to kill off a mere handful of people with a monster, in 1826 Shelley killed of EVERYBODY in The Last Man, the grim story of a global pandemic. I didn’t deliberately read it with COVID-19 in mind—Shelley’s book has been on my “to read” list for a while—but reading it now certainly makes the experience a bit creepier.
To set the stage:
In 1826, John Quincy Adams was president. Founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died that year. Charles X was King of France. Beethoven was still composing. And according to Wikipedia, “Cayetano Ripoll became the last person to be executed by the Spanish Inquisition at its last auto-da-fé, held in Valencia.” The Spanish Inquisition! Sounds like ancient history. The action of The Last Man takes place near the end of the 21st Century. In other words, not long from now.
Mary Shelly’s mother was philosopher/feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, her husband was poet Percy Shelley, and their companion was Lord Byron. To read her is to plunge yourself into a Romantic world of overwrought passions, where no one speaks—not even in the throes of death—without delivering a flowery oration. And why write “The sky cleared,” when instead you could write, “As Sampson with tug and strain stirred from their bases the columns that supported the Philistine temple, so did the gale shake the dense vapours propped on the horizon while the massy dome of clouds fell to the south, disclosing though the scattered web the clear empyrean, and the little stars, which were set at an immeasurable distance in the crystalline fields, showered their small rays on the glittering snow.”
If I had read this book even just a year ago, I probably would have viewed it as a quaint oddity. After all, the world Shelly paints, even though it is set more or less in our own time, is very much the world of the early 19th Century. The result is a weird sense of past, present, and future all coming together to witness the end of humankind. Here in 2020, that sounds less far-fetched than it would have in 1920 or even 2019.
Yet someone reading a newspaper today could be forgiven for not knowing that we too, like Shelley’s doomed characters, are in the midst of a global pandemic. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, coming on the heels of two already tense months of economic shutdown and ongoing leadership problems in DC, has touched off a firestorm big enough to sweep COVID-19 from the front pages. The incident brought decades of police brutality and centuries of racism to a head, and set off a powder keg of protests, some of them violent, across the country.
But the pandemic has not gone away. Many fear that the wave of large-scale protests may in fact be providing fertile ground for spreading the virus even faster and further.
Oh yeah, and there’s still the problem of climate change.
Strange days, indeed.