Last Man Standing: M.P. Shiel's 'The Purple Cloud'

Wednesday, January 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

by Ross Greenawalt
Special to

“I could have come to land a long time before I did; but I would not: I was so afraid. For I was used to the silence of the ice; and I was used to the silence of the sea: but I was afraid of the silence of Europe.” -- from The Purple Cloud

Adam Jeffson is elated to join the expedition striving to be the first - after three dozen failed attempts - to reach the North Pole. Elated, that is, until he actually reaches it. There, he finds a crystalline lake, and on a pillar of ice in the center sees written an indecipherable name. He promptly passes out. He later discovers that, while he was incapacitated, a mysterious poison-gas cloud killed his fellow explorers. As he travels south in search of survivors, his dread gives way to the gut-wrenching realization that out of the population of the entire planet, only Jeffson has been spared from extermination.

This is not your average last-man-on-earth story. Shiel’s vivid style lends itself well to the tale, from the horrific (as Jeffson realizes his fate and that of his expedition) to the epic (an extended triptych as he searches the globe for other survivors) to the bizarre (his descent into madness over the ensuing decades, jarringly chronicled in the first person). As his solitary existence in this post-apocalyptic setting continues, Jeffson begins to believe humanity’s decimation is no accident; that mankind’s urge to unravel the mysteries of the earth - mysteries it wasn’t meant to unravel, or even to comprehend - has led another Adam to sample another Tree of Knowledge. He tries to reconcile his sin by ridding the world of all traces of its former inhabitants, burning cities across the continents and trying to find some explanation for his own survival.

The Bison Commemorative Edition reprints Shiel’s 1929 revision of his 1901 novel, with a brief introduction and analysis by sci-fi expert John Clute. The novel is written as a series of journal entries - no chapters - and Shiel’s combination of macabre subject and gorgeous language is masterful. Ultimately uplifting, the narrative is never dull, and never predictable - by the time Jeffson’s desperate journey finally reaches England, the reader is completely hooked.

Biblical references, if a bit heavy-handed at times (the main character’s name, for instance), do provide an air of timelessness, despite the technology in evidence (Jeffson travels the world using only sea and rail). Although The Purple Cloud was written a quarter century before the field even had a name, it’s easy to see why it’s one of the key works in science fiction.

The central theme is as relevant in the era of Y2k and Left Behind as it was in that of the British Empire and War of the Worlds. No spaceships, no aliens, no machines, no computers: The Purple Cloud is rooted firmly in the reality of its era, yet it’s still as compelling and hypnotic as it surely was a century ago. A cautionary tale for every age, it’s hard to put down, harder still to forget.

The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel
Bison Books Commemorative Edition, 2000
Science Fiction, 294 pages

Editor's Note: The photo below is of 'The Purple Cloud's' author, M.P. Shiel. It is not a photo of Ross Greenawalt, KOTV Senior Producer-Director at KOTV Channel 6 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. However, I have been told by some of his friends that there is a striking resemblance,