Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Purple Cloud: Review

And...we're off. The first review of 2016. I just wish I'd picked a better book....

M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud tells the story Adam Jeffson, the last survivor of a doomed Polar expedition and, ultimately, the last man on Earth. For some inexplicable reason, the North Pole, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Garden of Eden in the Bible, has become associated with that place and the idea behind The Purple Cloud is that if anyone every reaches the Pole and enters the forbidden territory once again, then all of mankind will be wiped out. Many expeditions are mounted before Jeffson's crew heads north and they all fail (luckily for mankind). But some sort of fate protects Jeffson and he alone of his entire expedition makes it to the goal. 

When he returns to the ship, expecting to be greeted by the cheers of the ship's crew, he finds all hands dead. And as he makes his way back to England, he finds nothing but dead men and women everywhere. The evidence he finds leads him to understand that a great "purple cloud, smelling of peaches" made its way over the Earth, killing everything in its path. Only he has been spared.

Jeffson remembers a man he met in college who claimed that two great powers--one Black and one White--were in competition for the Earth. For whatever reason, he has become the focus of these powers, guided by them to the Pole and throughout his life after the mass destruction. We follow his story as he works his way through loneliness, despair, acceptance, and finally...the decision he must make when he finds that he's not alone after all. There has been an Eve spared to match his Adam. But should he really start the human race again?

The Purple Cloud is one of the earliest "last man alive" stories in science fiction. It deserves to be noted for that fact alone. But--looking back at it from 100-plus years--I have to say it is one of the most tedious post-apocalyptic tales I've ever read. The book could truly have been a short story...or short novella at most and done the work. The endless pages of Jeffson meeting up with boat after boat full of dead men and then going from city to city to city to city....on endless repeat--finding everyone dead, wandering around looking in this building and that building and describing the ghastly scene over and over and over got to be a bit much.

The first third of the book which is devoted to the race to the Pole was quite interesting. After that, like the purple cloud, it turned quite deadly. Deadly dull that is. It doesn't help that Adam Jeffson is a thoroughly unlikeable man. He doesn't bat an eye when his fiancee kills her own nephew so Jeffson can be on the Polar expedition (there's a huge cash prize for the first man to set foot on Pole, you see). And he casually kills other members of the expedition later. His mad dash around the cities of Earth (after the disaster) burning everything in sight is appalling as well. And we're left to wonder--if the White power really has "won" (as Jeffson seems to think), why on earth would it choose this man to be the father of the new race of men? We're certainly not headed for a new, improved humanity given that Adam is a killer. ★★


Abi said...

I read it for the color coded challenge 2015 and I agree completely with you- in fact I just had to skip through a bunch (a BIG bunch rather) of pages but nevertheless it was fun reading something like that from 1901

Bev Hankins said...

It was interesting to read such an early science fiction novel--I agree.

fredamans said...

Too bad you didn't go off with a good start. Sucks but thankfully there's tons of good reading left to do for the year! :-)