....there was undoubtedly some sort of Fate, or Doom, connected with the Poles of the earth in reference to the human race: that man's continued failure, in spite of continual efforts, to reach them, abundantly and super-abundantly proved this; and that this failure constituted a lesson—and a warning—which the race disregarded at its peril.
The North Pole, he said, was not so very far away, and the difficulties in the way of reaching it were not, on the face of them, so very great: human ingenuity had achieved a thousand things a thousand times more difficult; yet in spite of over half-a-dozen well-planned efforts in the nineteenth century, and thirty-one in the twentieth, man had never reached: always he had been baulked, baulked, by some seeming chance—some restraining Hand: and herein lay the lesson—herein the warning. Wonderfully—really wonderfully—like the Tree of Knowledge in Eden, he said, was that Pole: all the rest of earth lying open and offered to man—but That persistently veiled and 'forbidden.' It was as when a father lays a hand upon his son, with: 'Not here, my child; wheresoever you will—but not here.'
But human beings, he said, were free agents, with power to stop their ears, and turn a callous consciousness to the whispers and warning indications of Heaven; and he believed, he said, that the time was now come when man would find it absolutely in his power to stand on that 90th of latitude, and plant an impious right foot on the head of the earth—just as it had been given into the absolute power of Adam to stretch an impious right hand, and pluck of the Fruit of Knowledge; but, said he—his voice pealing now into one long proclamation of awful augury—just as the abuse of that power had been followed in the one case by catastrophe swift and universal, so, in the other, he warned the entire race to look out thenceforth for nothing from God but a lowering sky, and thundery weather.
The man's frantic earnestness, authoritative voice, and savage gestures, could not but have their effect upon all; as for me, I declare, I sat as though a messenger from Heaven addressed me. But I believe that I had not yet reached home, when the whole impression of the discourse had passed from me like water from a duck's back. The Prophet in the twentieth century was not a success. John Baptist himself, camel-skin and all, would, have met with only tolerant shrugs. I dismissed Mackay from my mind with the thought: 'He is behind his age, I suppose.'
But haven't I thought differently of Mackay since, my God...?
What happens "after people"?
Well, in the artistic imagination there cannot perhaps be an "after people." But what happens after a near-extinction level event? What happens after Pat Frank's Alas Babylon, but before Walter Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz?
Stephen King's The Stand (1978 version, please!) was the first novel I read about such a calamity. But Shiel's is I think superior.
Unlike another masterwork of the subgenre, George Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), it does away with vigilantism as a solution to social crises in the post-catastrophe world. And unlike King's masterwork, it does not revel in the satisfactions of bourgeois rule restored (in Boulder, Colorado, no less)
I first read M.P. Shiel's opulent 1901 novel The Purple Cloud in 2004. I bought a crumbly paperback at a bookstore on pre-gentrified West 25th Street here in Cleveland.
The longing for apocalypse, and the corresponding hunger for Robinsonade, are deeply embedded in bourgeois culture. The bourgeoisie is, after all, the first class to truly think it can "have its cake and eat it, too." The blood of a billion toilers over three centuries has in fact paid for the privilege.
Shiel's novel is more than simply a man trekking through the remains of a once-teeming world. It is about a man warring with himself, fighting the impulse to collapse and wallow in self-indulgence.
The poetic purple heights of Shiel's prose still intoxicate, as does the magisterial slingshot ending:
....this I understand: that it is the White who is Master here: that though he wins but by a hair, yet he wins, he wins: and since he wins, dance, dance, my heart.
I look for a race that shall resemble its Mother: nimble-witted, light-minded, pious—like her; all-human, ambidextrous, ambicephalous, two-eyed—like her; and if, like her, they talk the English language with all the r's turned into l's, I shall not care.
They will be vegetable-eaters, I suppose, when all the meat now extant is eaten up: but it is not certain that meat is good for men: and if it is really good, then they will invent a meat: for they will be her sons, and she, to the furthest cycle in which the female human mind is permitted to orbit, is, I swear, all-wise.
There was a preaching man—a Scotchman he was, named Macintosh, or something like that—who said that the last end of Man shall be well, and very well: and she says the same: and the agreement of these two makes a Truth. And to that I now say: Amen, Amen.
For I, Adam Jeffson, second Parent of the world, hereby lay down, ordain, and decree for all time, clearly perceiving it now: That the one Motto and Watch-word essentially proper to each human individual, and to the whole Race of Man, as distinct from other races in heaven or in earth, was always, and remains, even this: 'Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.'