End of the World, 1805: The Bible as Gothic Romance
Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s The Last Man (1805)
I’ll confess. I’m an unabashed a fan of that overdone genre, post-apocalyptic science fiction. Its tropes are now clichés: the ruin porn; the zombie hordes; the ragged survivors furtivly eating canned food looted from abandoned stores, shotgun or hatchet at the ready; the jagged skyline of broken buildings… all as predictable as the plot of a soap opera.
Still, in some ways this genre remains fresh because it reveals so much about our fears about civilization and its relationship to science, technology, and nature. Science and technology are mediators between us and nature; in modern civilization, we rarely encounter the raw power of nature without science’s buffering effects.
But are we like the sorcerer’s apprentice, putting the world at risk by playing with powers that are out of our league? Have we used science to truly transcend nature’s casual brutality, or are we just kidding ourselves? Are we too complacent, too willingly blind about just how inhospitable our cosmos is? And does our own human nature depend on the scientific underpinnings of civilization — what happens to civil society when science’s support is yanked away? Will it be Mad Max-style battling warlords? Or pastoral communities in tune with nature’s rhythms?
In End of the World fiction, the answers to these questions are all over the map, and that’s why this genre is so awesome.
One thing you may not know about this genre is that its’s been extremely popular for well over 100 years. Nearly every well-worn post-apocalyptic scenario — with the notable exception of the zombie apocalypse — was invented before World War I. Alien invasions, collisions with space objects, pandemic plagues, catastrophic climate change, and even nuclear war, were all written about in novels published between 1805 and 1914.
So here’s my project: I will go back to the modern beginnings of the genre, and discuss every major post-apocalyptic novel (and many key short stories) between then and now.
We’ll start with the first novel of the genre in modern times, a book that today we would call Dying Earth science fiction: The Last Man, by the French priest Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville. Published in 1805, it’s a bizarre rewrite of the Book of Revelations as futuristic Gothic novel, filled with temples, spirits, visions, and trans-Atlantic airships.
Grainville was inspired by Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. While Milton’s poem retells the story of Genesis about humanity’s first couple, Grainville inverts this and writes about the last couple. Grainville intended to make it an epic poem, but he died leaving only a prose version, which was published posthumously in French. Ten months later, a pirated English translation appeared in London. The book satisfied a growing interest in future fiction and was part of a trend for what we now call ruin porn.
When you write about the last human couple, there’s a problem: who tells the story? Adam and Eve had descendants, but how would anyone know about the last man? Grainville solves this with a framing narrative: An unnamed, present-day (19th century present-day) traveler visits the famous ruins of Palmyra in Syria, where he walks into a cave. There, in the style of John the Revelator, he encounters a Celestial Spirit. The Spirit tells him to write down a vision he will see of the last man, who, the Spirit tells him, “will have no descendants who can know and admire him. My desire is that before he is born, he will be known in memory.”
The story that the Spirit shows the traveler is a fascinating mess, filled with tales within tales, temples, battling spirits, prophet-scientists, heavenly signs, and tests of faith. What it boils down to is this: the Earth is dying, and along with it the human race, which has become infertile. Earth and humanity can only be saved if a chosen man, Omegarus, and a chosen woman, Sydaria, get together and have sex – they are the only ones who could still beget a child.
The catch here is that God doesn’t want them to — the Earth has reached the end of its allotted time, and it’s time to wrap things up. But, as with the Adam and Eve story, there’s a Deceiver out to foil God’s plan: the “Spirit of the Earth”, whose fate is connected to the earth, and will do anything to avoid dying himself as the world ends. And so he tries to get Omegarus and Sydaria together, while Adam, brought back to earth after millennia of being forced to watch his progeny tossed through the gates of Hell, has been tasked with keeping the two apart.
Unfortunately for Adam, Omegarus and Sydaria fall in love. Various prophecies are fulfilled, and in the end, Omegarus has to make a fateful choice: obey God and abandon Sydaria to die, or follow his passion and foul up the sequence of events that are supposed to lead to the Last Judgment. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’m sure you can guess the ultimate outcome. The author was a French priest — in the end, God always wins.
Science: An Abused Gift of God
What’s especially fascinating about The Last Man is the big role for science in an unscientific world. Grainville’s Catholic civilization is not that of the Deist Age of Enlightenment; it’s much closer to the medieval cosmos of Dante. Supernatural forces abound. And yet Grainville shows that through scientific achievements that humanity reaches a utopian state:
Matured by bitter experiences, the human race took giant strides along the road to perfection. Humankind seemed to have reached the highest level of perfection, when a man appeared whose genius made them wonder if he could be a god in human form. His name was Philantor. His predecessors had conquered nature by steadfast dedication to their investigations… All other philosophers had done no more than raise the veil of nature. Philantor exposed her naked to mortal eyes.
Philantor (and yes, everyone in the future has ponderous names like this) is a brilliant scientist who invents something that sounds like nuclear energy. He then follows this with his greatest triumph: an elixir of extreme longevity, carefully doled out only to the most worthy. Like Philantor, all of major scientific figures in the book are scientist-prophets, pious men (only men, sadly) who glorify God. But, paradoxically, they also take too much from nature. “Never satisfied” with her fruits, they became “spendthrifts with their power and squandered their inheritance.”
Grainville’s view of technological progress turns out to be somewhat incoherent — we’re told later in the book that the true source of scientific invention is not so heavenly. The great engineering projects, the large airports, the airships that capable of rounding the globe powered by “volatile spirits that could carry men above the clouds more powerfully then the sails of ships,” the invention of an almost limitless source of energy, none of these turn out to be due to “human inventiveness,” but rather gifts on the sly from the Spirit of the Earth. This Spirit has a great laboratory in the center of the planet, filled with “the sap and seeds of plants and the various essences of animals.” It was really this Spirit, not the scientist-prophets, who “interrogated nature and compelled her to answer him.” In an amazing plot twist for an 1805 novel, the Spirit has built up giant cache of explosives, which go off toward the end of the book, blow the Earth out of its orbit, and help initiate the Last Judgement.
Grainville’s weird mixup of Biblical drama and science-filled future fiction is a trip. In its own unusual way, it captures some key themes of the End of the World genre, including the role of science as a major player in a morality tale. The Last Man is a fun read from an odd little corner of early science fiction.
Image credit: “The Last Man” John Martin (1849); “An Air Balloon” Smithsonian Institution