"Lo! I show you the last man."
-Friedrich Nietzche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
For a reason of which I am uncertain, many people seem fascinated with the concept of a final man: the sole relic of humanity’s presence on this world. I myself am fascinated by the concept. I wanted to write about why I, and by extension our species, is so invested in the idea of a last man or woman. I found, however, that I had basically no idea why I found the concept appealing. Every part of psyche seems repulsed by the idea and yet I find narratives surrounding it so very compelling.
The first last man narrative I remember reading was the HG Wells novel The Time Machine. In it, a nameless inventor creates a machine by which he may travel forwards and backwards in time. He ventures to the year 802,701 AD. Here, he finds that humanity has split into two subspecies: the childlike and defenseless Eloi and the proactive yet cannibalistic Morlocks. To his horror, the time traveller discovers that the Morlocks use the Eloi as livestock. The time traveller travels beyond the scope of human existence yet ultimately returns to his own era. Here, Wells depicts probably the most appealing version of the last man scenario: one in which the last man can ultimately return to a world where he may dwell among his fellows. The only lasting repercussions are the psychological trauma the traveller is plagued with.
As a child, this novel fascinated me. I was awestruck and horrified. The Morlocks seemed unspeakably horrifying. Perhaps it was their desire to eat the more-overtly human and innocent-seeming Eloi, or their uncanny-valley physical descriptions.
In many ways, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend reminded me of Wells’ novel. Both feature a lone human who spends the majority of their respective novels isolated from any peers. Neville spends the majority of the novel absent from any fellow humans due to his ability to survive the vampiric plague. (Matheson) Meanwhile, the time traveller spends his trip to the far future with his own only meaningful companion being an infantile Eloi named Weena who cannot speak English. Although the traveller can understand some of the primitive Eloi language, the Eloi are seemingly intellectually stunted. Weena behaves like a very young child, leaving the Time Traveller devoid of an equal. (Wells)
As a child, the isolation the Time Traveller feels affected me. It truly felt as though he was alone even with Weena and her kin as companions.
Another similarity between these novels is the twists they contain, which bear a resemblance to one another. The Time Traveller is initially unaware of the origins of the Morlocks. Neville similarly is surprised by the human qualities possessed by his vampiric opponents. As well, both feature an intellectual opponent who manages through their wits to outsmart the post-human creatures who wish to feast upon them. (Wells)
What many modern and postmodern Last Man novels share is the aforementioned feeling of isolation. Mary Shelley's The Last Man implies that loneliness and sorrow are the most natural human states, reflecting Shelley and her associates’ Gothic outlook. (Shelley)
To an extent, I suspect it is this isolation which I suspect gives this concept its appeal. Last Men have no laws governing them, no masters. As such, while we may not really want to be alone on Earth (I know I do not at least), I admire the apocalyptic independence of Robert Neville and his ilk. I feel as though misanthropic or at least socially reclusive readers may feel a kinship with these Last Men.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Project Gutenberg Literary Archive
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. Tom Doherty Associates, 1997.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Last Man. Bibliofile, 2009.
Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. Baronet Books, 2008.