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The Last Man

Alfred Noyes

And still of a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

§ Everyone knows The Highwayman (1906) by Alfred Noyes (1880-1958), one of the more famous poems in the English language.

But did you know Alfred Noyes actually wrote a science fiction novel? His now forgotten 1940 tale, The Last Man (a.k.a No Other Man, USA) is like an Art Deco fairy tale for adults, and so it should be no surprise to learn that when Noyes taught at Princeton as a visiting Professor in the 20s, one of his students was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In common with many other writers of the period, Noyes was anti-war, and the poetic simplicity of The Last Man makes it a testament to human loneliness. The hero survives the death ray (similar to a neutron bomb -- people die, but not the landscape) because he's being held prisoner on an enemy submarine submerged just off the Isle of Wight.

How, why? Don't ask.

Alfred Noyes: The Last Man

When he escapes and surfaces, his journey becomes a dreamy travelogue among the dead. Three bathing beauties lie undisturbed on the beach. There are no bad smells, no ugly corpses, just the poet's sense of ironic beauty and moral exasperation.

Within the chaos, Noyes has a sense of humour; his hero -- Mark Adams -- journeys towards London, stops off at the estate of an esteemed critic called Sir Herbert Boskin. Here he finds the great man dead behind his study desk with a book of Belgian pornography, and in another room, his dead wife in the arms of her dead lover.

Roman a clef payback time? Quite possibly.

He drops in at Number 10 Downing Street, finds the War Cabinet sitting dead in the upstairs conference room, rifles their pockets, reflects on their abilities, political and moral. Again, there is a playful malevolence behind the rhetoric and the Victorian judgment; again, no bad smells.

He explored Salisbury, Oxford, Birmingham, York and Edinburgh, and everywhere it was the same -- silence and the rigid, innumerable hosts of silence.

He finds a car -- there are lots of them for the taking -- drives to other cities, finds nothing but the elegant dead and the beautiful silence of the apocalypse. No panic, no sense of personal madness, no thought of suicide. For Adams, the end of the world isn't a calamity, it's an opportunity. Someone must be alive somewhere, even if just in artistic facsimile.

So his survival quest sends him to Paris, as if moving through a series of paintings, still-lifes for the dead, then on to Italy, the ultimate painting. When at the Louvre, he finds evidence of another survivor, a female. A message says she's from Boston, is living in Rome, provides the address. Cherchez la femme... an American girl called Evelyn Hamilton who just happened to survive the human cull because she was in a diving bell photographing the floor of the Mediterranean. She's goodlooking, smart, fit and perfect for repopulating the world, which is why she was chosen by her evil patron Mardok. Mardok, naturally, is the man responsible for the death ray, another rogue scientist in the long chain of such moral inverts, reaching back to Captain Nemo and Baron Frankenstein, visionaries whose altruism includes crime.

Alfred Noyes: the Edge of the Abyss

The Noyes' novel makes an interesting comparison to Ballard's The Drowned World (1962) or even David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) for choices made in terms of free will and collective morality. The influence of The Last Man on Orwell's 1984 might seem obtuse at first, but not when you remember that Orwell was always engaged in the moral argument, no matter what narrative he wrote, so the didactic appeal of Noyes becomes obvious.

Noyes influenced George Orwell and not just in a minor, floating imagistic way, impressions grabbed and forgotten until they surface again in the finger-tips. There is a group of essays, The Edge of the Abyss (1942) that came from some lectures that Noyes delivered at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick (as part of the war effort) and later Orwell reviewed, agreeing with Noyes' position re the "decay in the belief of absolute good and evil" and the catastrophic drift into moral relativism and the acceptance of weapons of mass destruction.

So many novels just mark Time rather than condensing it, or, ideally, eliminating it. Eventually The Last Man falls into this trap, largely because of the expositional chunks, which -- even though they have an intellectual validity of their own -- become sermons in search of a believer rather than servants of the story. Plot-points are postponed, action denied. You can skip them, of course, and any dramatization would ignore them except for the choicest bon mots.

In the age of such awful weapons as the Russian SS 18 Satan 5 ICBM or the American B61-12 surgical nuke, all of this late Modern fantasy might seem romantic. Birds, animals, insects, plants all remain alive, undisturbed, as if the human heart alone is/was susceptible to the kill power of the mysterious death ray. Thus the weapon is as much figurative as it is meant to be real, an author's conceit in the game of pretend. Bodies do not decompose; somehow they calcify, as if embalmed by the invisible wave that stops the human heart, and only the human heart. Then the calcification turns to ash and the bodies disappear into Nature with no messy inbetweens.

The writing is very good, fluid and easy, just like Noyes' ballads. Yet it's utterly out-of-step with today's plain narratives which regress towards the pictographic rather than advance towards rhetoric.

For nearly half a century, the literature and art of western civilization had succumbed (partly out of intellectual snobbery) to the subtle propaganda of the new atheism.

In Rome, Mark Adams goes to the Keats House where -- of course -- he settles down in the library to read some English poetry. Why not? The solitude of the end of the world is the poet's solitude, the longing for aloneness and the rapture of the eternal. In a sense, Adams is pursuing his Muse; so for Noyes, the author, the narrative becomes an art essay framed in fantasy. It's both basic science fiction (which evolved from the science essay) and high culture discourse. Yes, it goes on a bit much at times, a sermon rather than a story, and Noyes interrupts the action too often for the contemporary reader who wants action and only action. Perhaps it's the last gasp of classicism, where civilization falls to science, and language becomes labelling rather then rhetoric. In this sense, the poet Noyes is "The Last Man."

Eventually Adams finds Evelyn's address in the telephone book and when he breaks into her apartment, finds a message: look for me in Ravello. What a trip! Thomas Cook could not have planned it better, even with a discount for the end of the world.

And then, unseen, he saw her, standing on the parapet before him. She was gazing out to sea, with her light print dress fluttering round her like a flower in the wind from the south....

When "Adam" catches up to "Eve" the novel is halfway done. When the villain Mardok catches up to the young lovers, the narrative is 70% and the rest of the action decides their fate. Evelyn owes her survival to Mardok, "a man who never let his right hand know what his left is doing", a man of unknown nationality and origin. His unflattering description is pure semi-tone:

The brutal mouth and fanatical eyes of Mardok belonged to a type that fifty years ago would never have commanded admiration, except perhaps in the underworld.

Knowing that the world was doomed at 3 pm G.M.T. he arranged to have Evelyn with him in a diving bell exploring the ocean floor just off Capri. Of course the diving bell is fitted out more like a penthouse than a submarine, and has two diving suits for their escape after the death wave attack; at the time, Mardok apparently drowns, but Evelyn, a strong swimmer, survives. This is what happens when you attempt some "loathsome" Freudian analysis on a young woman in a diving bell, it seems. You might think of Mardok as an expression of the prevailing totalitarianism, although his pedigree is a more Miltonic form of evil than the extreme nationalism of the 20th century dictator. In fact, Noyes inserts some apologetic business to suggest that Mussolini was a friend of Britain, and was forced by France into an unfortunate alliance with Hitler. Well, Noyes loved Italy, no question.

The Last Man: a beautifully written yet bizarre novel -- which, of course, makes it all the more attractive to the literary archaeologists among us. Poetic rather than scientific, religious rather than secular, and, strangely, static rather than mobile even though the hero never stays still. The landscape is locked in nostalgia, well rid of the meddlesome human race and its idiotic politics. Is it science fiction? Not really, although it fits into the tradition of alternate world novels developed by the SF genre.

When it comes to Doomsday, 'The Last Man' is a poet and a neo-classicist, not some fellow in a Hugo Boss lab coat.

© LR November 2016

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