The Custodian, William Tenn, 1955

After scientists discover that the sun will go nova in a hundred years, humanity divides into two warring sect, The Affirmers and The Custodians. Affirmers eschew everything but the strictly utilitarian in a effort to transport the entire population to the safety of extra-solar colonies. Custodians seek the aesthetic and wish to die with the Earth than live without art. The Affirmers triumph politically and they begin a mass evacuation of Earth, evenually forcing Custodians to leave with them.

The story begins with the Custodian granted the privilege to die with the Earth. Only a few years remain before the nova. He is left with a functioning spaceship and is tasked with making sure no Custodian hold-outs remain by monitoring the planet for human life signs. He spends his days flying around the world and viewing all the art and natural beauty left behind. Eventually he discovers a group of Custodians who had hidden themselves to avoid evacuation. The adults are dead due to a malfunction in the machines that kept them hidden. He adopts the surviving infant and the responsibility of fatherhood teaches him that life is more precious than art or artifacts. He loads the spaceship with as much art as he can, and they leave for the colony orbiting Alpha Centauri.

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5,271,009, Alfred Bester, 1954

During a session of drug-induced psychoanalysis, the protagonist wills himself into different ideal scenarios that reveal themselves to be less than ideal upon examination. One of them is a devastated world where the protagonist is the last man on Earth, he meets the last woman on Earth and the story begins to move to a Shaggy God resolution. However, he reveals an infected or an impacted tooth. When he realizes that there are no dentists, he kills himself to relieve the pain and wakes up.

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Def: Shaggy God Story

The lead in that I wrote for the Wikipedia entry.

Shaggy God story

A Shaggy God story is a minor science fiction genre characterized by an attempt to explain Biblical concepts with science fiction tropes. The term was coined by writer and critic Brian W. Aldiss in a pseudonymous column in the October 1965 issue of New Worlds (magazine). The term is a pun on the concept of a Shaggy dog story. In its original sense a Shaggy God story features a heterosexual pair of astronauts landing on a lush and virgin world and in the last line their names are revealed as Adam and Eve. The term has now spread into general usage to mean any science fictional justification of theology. It is widely considered a cliché.

The creation of the term is often misattributed to Michael Moorcock. Moorcock edited the issue of New Worlds where Aldiss coined the term in a pseudonymous column. It has been suggested that many assumed Moorcock to be the author of the column. The issue was cleared up in an August 2004 David Langford column in SFX magazine.

The genre as a cliché

"The shaggy god story is the bane of magazine editors, who get approximately one story a week set in a garden of Eden spelt Ee-Duhn."

--Brian W. Aldiss, writing as Dr. Peristyle, New Worlds October, 1965.

Brian Stableford notes in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2nd ed.) that “a considerable fraction” of stories submitted to science fiction magazines feature a male and female astronaut marooned on a habitable planet and “reveal (in the final line) that their names are Adam and Eve.”

The genre is also listed a cliché in the Science Fiction Writers of America's Turkey City Lexicon: A Primer for SF Workshops and David Langford's July 2004 SFX magazine column on the same.

The Tale of the Last Man, Richard Shaver (1946)

Gradual winnowing of the population through sterility has resulted in the last man on Earth. He is elderly and lonely and much of the story is spent on him reflecting on the world that no longer exists, especially fixated on never having even seen a woman. He eventually clones himself (with half of the clones created as females) and repopulates the world. They call him “God” and he muses about the circularity of time.

Almost a text book example of the Shaggy God story, slightly hampered in achieving full cliché bloom by the fact that the protagonist understands that he is becoming “God” and reflects on the irony. Like the Genesis account, not a moment is spent on the genetics of populating the Earth with the offspring of gender-swapped clones. The story is quite maudlin as well, ascribing the universal sterility that lead to the depopulation of the Earth as:

“Women had ceased to conceive, for man was a being no longer capable of love (144)”

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The Last Man, Adam Nemett, 2006

A short, confusing story of a college campus cut-off by the rising waters of a worldwide flood. Leadership during the crisis is seized by a self-styled Übermensch, Vitali Zinchenko, acting consciously in the Nietzschean mode. He warns his followers against becoming The Last Man – self-satisfied with the world they have made and therefore pathetic and week. His aura of power is supported by drugs doled out by his second-in-command, the narrator. When the scene is finally set, the story trails off before anything resembling a plot appears.


Adam and No Eve, Alfred Bester, 1941

Black as night.

Stephen Krane develops a catalyst that induces iron into "atomic disintegration" uses it to power a rocket. Despite warnings of dire consequences and acts of sabotage, he takes off in the rocket with his dog in tow. Knocked unconscious during the takeoff, he wakes in time to see the entire Earth engulfed in flame. Leaking catalyst sets off all of the iron atoms in the atmosphere like tiny nuclear weapons. He and the dog land on a devastated world full of nothing but ashes. The story is told in flashbacks as he crawls with broken leg toward an uncertain destination. He hallucinates conversations with the saboteur and his fiancée Evelyn. Eventually his starvation-mad dog attacks him and he is forced to kill him. He builds a funeral pyre for the dog and his remaining possessions. Story ends as he is waiting to die, hoping that the bacteria in his body will live and eventually evolve into intelligent life.

One of the few stories where the protagonist is the literal last man on earth, is actually responsible for the death of everyone else and never meets another person.

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Possible Title

You're Only Free When Everyone Else Is Dead:
The Last Man on Earth in Literature and Film