We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.—Orson Welles
In 1826, Mary Shelley published one of the first dystopian novels on the great misfortune of being the last man on earth. Having lost the people closest to her, buried her husband and three of her four children, she was obsessed with death, isolation, and the fate of all mankind. In The Last Man, Shelley writes about Lionel, who has a few compatriots who leave him via typhus and shipwreck until there is only him and a sheepdog, wandering the earth in the year 2100. Since science fiction and fantasy became an identifiable genre, we have been writing about our greatest collective and individual fear: being the last of our kind.
That’s not even a definable condition, though. What does it mean to be last? Who is our kind?
In 1920, W.E.B Du Bois published his seminal postapocalyptic short story “The Comet,” pairing a Black man and a white woman as the last people, at least in New York, but they have no way to be sure they’re not the last in the world. Du Bois uses the empty city to explore segregation; this is the first time main character Jim Davis has been able to move freely through front doors. Their isolation produces friendship and eventually intimacy; he and the woman in the story talk about having sex for procreation despite the era’s taboo on interracial coupling. Before this can happen, some other lasts of their kind appear: white men. In the end, Jim has not escaped violent racism or gained any real freedom, and he is still, in at least one important way, the last of his kind.
Running from 2002 to 2008, Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra published the series Y: The Last Man. In it, every mammal on earth that possesses a Y chromosome has mysteriously died, except for one man, Yorick Brown, and his pet monkey. And so Y becomes the last man on earth, and his position is immediately a dangerous one. Gender norms are totally destabilized as he loses his autonomy and becomes a valuable piece of a genetic puzzle rather than a person.
But what is man? A Y chromosome is an oblique and simplistic way to determine an impossible litmus test of gender, which isn’t even a binary question to begin with. Yorick’s tragedy isn’t that he misses other men who share his experience, or that he feels hunted for his gametes, but that being the last in his case means he doesn’t get to choose. The last man is lonesome, but not because he is alone on earth. He’s only alone in his category.
This stands in stark comparison to works like Richard Matheson’s 1954 cry of loneliness, I Am Legend. Matheson’s lonesome hero, Neville, is the last regular human on earth after an apocalyptic war turns everyone around him into a classic vampire. Neville is hunted and endangered, but also just pained by the memory of other people, the way life used to be. This is often the way the last body is presented in SF/F: as the remnant of something beautiful that will pass forever from this world. The deeply depressed Lll builders of Samuel Delany’s novel Empire Star fit this bill, as does The Doctor, the last remaining Time Lord from the fallen planet of Gallifrey, on the long-running British television show, Doctor Who. Will Stanton of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence is the last of the Old Ones, a magically powerful race meant to protect the earth, and this shackles Will to a job and a destiny that no one else can fulfill. Similarly, Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps gives us two final scions of a line of gods, powerful and in love and alone, but two can be as bad as one (it’s the loneliest number since the number one). Tell us another one. Superman, the last living (or very close to it) survivor of the disaster on plant Krypton. We get the idea. The last of their kind is a lonely and restricted thing to be. It brings glory, but also great sacrifice.
This is not even a simply human (or superhuman) condition. In 1996, the film Dragonheart showed us the fate of the very last dragon (not great). In 1968, Peter S. Beagle published the enduring tale of The Last Unicorn, a creature of beauty and power whose solitary existence leads to perhaps the most terrible fate an author might imagine: being the last of her kind makes her susceptible to the human emotions of love and regret. Jose Luis Borges’s 1947 short story “The Immortal” takes us on the surreal, endless journey of earth’s only immortal who discovers that his condition makes it possible for him to feel not only profoundly alone, but also as if he has been every man. He is Homer, he is Ulysses, he is a humble bookseller. They are all the same: alone they beweep their outcast state.
Being the last of your kind is always an emotional proposition. It asks us to imagine a world not only without us, but without anyone who is like us. This can sting whether it’s a lack of physical progeny or just a quality we share. The heartbreak of the third episode of The Last of Us, HBO’s television series based on the fungal-zombie-plague video game of the same name, is rooted in the romance unto death shared between two queer men. It was never in the cards for them to have children, and the only community they can reach is the fellowship of desperate people whom they did not get to choose. Communities of survivors are like that: they are made up of folks who are the last of their kind in one way or another, linked by nothing more than luck and grit and continued breathing. But those two men, living out the life that they share between the two of them and no one else, no children, no brunch friends, no neighbors, had to wonder: are we the last of our kind?
Lately I’ve heard transgender authors wonder from within the ever-tightening noose of legislation aimed at pushing them out of private life whether they will be the last generation to live in the open. As queers of all stripes see their books banned from libraries and struck from collections and removed from classrooms, our collective chatter has centered not on who will be last, who will survive, but on what will be left of us.
In 2006, Max Brooks published World War Z, another zombie apocalypse full of the fears and fixations of another time. This novel depicts the fear that each survivor is the last of their kind with a kind of sublime ridiculousness, a trap of the ego. Thousands of legends and omega men and doctors emerge from hiding, each thinking themselves the last, each corrected by the discovery of all the others. This is a happy ending rooted in the idea that they can’t possibly get us all. There are always survivors. There might not be many, and what we leave behind may only be hash marks on the wall of a bunker, but they can’t really wipe us off the face of the earth.
“They” meaning zombies. “They” meaning Daleks. “They” meaning fascists. There are many reasons to hold this hope. The hope to leave something behind motivates writers from novelists to graffiti artists, and we all spread our mark as far as we can to evade the man with his white paint. The hope for books that escape banning and burning by more means than ever: e-books glowing in binary ineradicability deep on some Swiss kid’s server, copies archived by collectives and shielded in steel fireproof libraries from putsch and purge.
The hope of survival, of even just one, is something. The last body can stand and fight. The last body can hold them off. The last body can testify. The last body can be buried under a stone that explains that at least one of us was here, for a time, that we mattered because we were at least one.
This is the last of these columns, from my body to yours. It is a short stack of stones I leave behind, carved not just with my name, but with the names of writers like me, writers who I have taken care to mention within these columns. I recognize them because we are all the last of our kind. We are all the last body; we are all the last man standing and the final girl. We are making our stand together, each of us as important as if we were the only one left at the very end. Each one of us a stone with the names of those who have touched and influenced us carved deeply into our hearts. Our last body problem is that paradox: we are each alone and the last of our kind, and together we stack stone on stone to create the illusion of something that can never fall, that we are never really alone.
© 2023 Meg Elison