Previously available only in a bowdlerized translation that muddied much of the original story, this apocalyptic 1805 French novel gets a second shot with English-speaking readers in a brisk new translation supplemented by helpful critical material. At the beginning, the narrator makes his way to a cavern in Syria where men fear to tread and finds himself witness to an oracular vision of the end of the world. That vision reveals Adam, who has been imprisoned for eons to live near the gates of hell and view the torment of every soul condemned to its fires, being set loose from captivity to witness the end of the world. In the story-within-a-vision, Adam sees a tired and wasted Earth’s life flickering out and comes across Omegarus and Syderia, the last man and woman destined to conceive child. Of considerable historical interest as the first tale of the Apocalypse not written entirely as a religious allegory, as a work of science fiction The Last Man creaks with age. One passage describing a transatlantic journey in magnificent airships soars triumphantly, but the author’s vision of the future is otherwise fuzzily imagined and filtered through an overwrought Romantic mindset that ascribes exclamation marks and impassioned sighs to more actions than not.
Less than spectacular entertainment, but an invaluable piece of literary history well worth adding to Wesleyan’s Classics of Early Science Fiction series.