Friday Reads: The Last Man, by Mary Shelley, with a new foreword by Rebecca Solnit

When I read that Rebecca Solnit wrote a new foreword for a Mary Shelley book, and it was one I hadn’t read yet, The Last Man, I jumped to acquire the new Penguin edition. Solnit writes so eloquently on many topics close to my heart, and Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favorite books—I reviewed it for this blog some time ago, here.

We knew Mary Shelley invented the Frankenstein genre, of course, and is often credited (correctly, I would say) with writing the first science fiction novel when she did. It turns out that a few years later, she also wrote the first Western novel about human extinction, as well as the first book in the genre now known as “climate fiction.” When Shelley wrote this book, The Last Man, the skies over Europe were dark because of a volcanic eruption, a cholera epidemic was cutting swaths out of the human population, and England’s political parties were battling over the future identity of the country. The author was also dealing with terrible personal loss, including the recent death of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their special friend, the poet Lord Byron.

This dystopian novel, set in the late twenty-first century, was not well-received by critics or the general public when it was published in 1824, but modern readers find much to explore and enjoy here. (Perhaps the book was “ahead of its time” in more ways than one.) Shelley invented lore about “finding” secret writings in a cave in Naples that she fashioned into this text, with a story that runs from 2073-2100. The foreword to the 2024 edition, by Rebecca Solnit, expertly connects Shelley’s concerns with ours, two hundred years later.

If you’d like to read or listen to an earlier edition of this novel right this minute, you’re in luck, because it’s 200 years old so it’s definitely in the public domain! The Internet Archive has many options to read the work (here is one option for volume 1 of 3) and Librivox has free audio (here is one option). I appreciate how many wonderful texts and works are available through the Internet Archive—if you haven’t explored there, this is a great time to start.

And if you’re in Nebraska, we have a couple of editions (from 1993 and 2006), from University of Nebraska Press, in our circulating collection to check out. You can search our OPAC here to request a copy.

Shelley, M. W., Solnit, R., & Havard, J. O. (2024). The last man. Penguin Classics.

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