Karen Burnham’s short fiction column goes in search of the Last Man on Earth.
I wonder if it’s possible for any story that features a Last Man on Earth to have a plot that differs significantly from Frederic Brown’s famous short-short-short story, “Knock”: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…” It seems so fundamental that only variations on the theme are possible. The details can differ: Why is this individual still around? What happened to everyone else? And the timing of the knock can differ: either at the beginning, middle, or end. But is there any story featuring a ‘last man’ that doesn’t have a knock on the door in it somewhere?
I’m thinking of M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, from back in 1901. A very evil man is in some way responsible for releasing the eponymous cloud that kills the rest of humanity. He makes his way back to England, slowly realizing that he’s the only one left. He goes thoroughly and convincingly mad for a long time — variously exploring, creating, and destroying. The proverbial knock comes in the final third of the book, when he finds a girl who has lived in isolation since the catastrophe hit. It’s disturbing to read about this deranged and evil man’s reaction to finding a potential Eve, but it’s entirely consistent with Brown’s outline.
As another example, how about Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend? Robert Neville is similarly a Last Man, but the knock on his door comes early, and it’s vampires. The rest of the book is about how he survives in a world where monsters are the only thing outside the door. Again, it fits comfortably in Brown’s summary — and of course it went on to spawn a genre of its own, what with all its numerous adaptations.
This winter, unusually, has two more short examples of the form. I was surprised by the coincidence — I can’t remember the last time I read any piece of fiction on this theme that wasn’t several decades old. But here we find the Winter issue of Subterranean Online with a Jay Lake story titled “A Long Walk Home” and the January Expanded Horizons with “re: The Last Man on Earth” by Eric Del Carlo.
Del Carlo makes his third appearance in Expanded Horizons with this story. His previous offering, “Aqueduct,” couldn’t have been more different. That story is a very conscious deconstruction of epic fantasy tropes, and manages to both admire and undermine the idea of escapist literature. Definitely worth a look if you’re interested in the construction of genre and reader experience. I really enjoyed it. “re: The Last Man on Earth” is equally conscious of playing in a specific genre trope, but this time it is core science fiction. Here the knock on the door comes right at the beginning. Our hero Bernard has managed to get a generator and a satellite uplink running, and receives a response to his email blast looking for plague survivors. The man who responds, Kit, is paraplegic and not able to travel, but gives Bernard motivation and advice for getting from San Francisco to Iowa, the goal of his quest. In a rather lucky turn, they are both gay and, for perhaps obvious reasons, attracted to each other. Unfortunately, as Bernard gets through the early mountain ranges, Kit stops responding to his messages, leaving him to push forward past not only highways clogged with corpses and abandoned cars, but also mounting doubts of Kit’s reality and his own sanity.
You have to grant two major points to the author in order for the story to work: that even after a plague kills almost all of humanity, leaving only a few widely-scattered survivors, people will still be able to access the satellite communication network in some sporadic fashion; and that two of the people who both survive and get in touch will be instantly compatible with each other. Del Carlo is aware of the somewhat rickety suspension bridge of disbelief that he’s building here, and rather hangs a lampshade on it, with Kit explaining the comms system and Bernard marveling at how unlikely it is that they found each other — he even compares his odyssey to Stephen King’s The Stand, and they talk about various apocalypse movies. But generally this story, with its confessional and epistolary form, is effective at what it’s doing. A scene at the end, where Bernard is faced with a brutally physical reminder of the futility of human struggle, is one that really sticks in the mind.
Lake’s offering is much less emotional, although equally specific about its genre antecedents. On a planet far, far away, Aeschylus Sforza (nicknamed in the rest of the story as ‘Ask’) is down in a deep subterranean cave when an event occurs that leaves him entirely stranded and alone on the planet. Luckily, Ask is a ‘Howard’ — a reference to the bred-for-immortality-family that produced Robert Heinlein’s archetypal Competent Man, Lazarus Long. So Ask is effectively immortal — he does need to eat and drink, but very little else is likely to kill him. The story covers 306 years of his post-apocalyptic life. The planet had been fairly developed — not simply rustic colonists, but some good sized cities and space ports. As much as he can he checks every single room of every single building over the entire planet. There are very few corpses — much like the Roanoake colony, it appears that everyone who was able to stood up, walked outside, and disappeared. Only people in tragic circumstances who were not able to go outside (a prisoner in a plane crash, a little girl who’d been locked away by abusive parents) were left behind to die. And he too, like so many of his genre predecessors, goes through phases of occasional madness. As the years pass, he becomes convinced that he’s not only the last human on the planet, but possibly in the universe — if humanity survived out in the stars, surely they’d have sent an exploratory mission when they lost communications with the planet.
This story ends almost exactly the way Brown’s original does. The penultimate line is: “He was about to learn what would happen next.” We don’t, and we also don’t learn about any ultimate cause. That’s not the point. The point instead is to follow one immortal being who outlives his species, and to find out what he does with himself. To this end, “A Long Walk Home” is effective and smoothly written.
I do wonder — are there any Last Women on Earth who ever hear knocks on their doors? When I was trolling through my memory and online, I couldn’t come up with any. Alternatively, are there any Last Men who never hear the knock — I likewise didn’t find any of them in my research. If you happen to know of any examples, Dear Reader, please throw them my way in the comments. Thanks!