Flight To Forever, Poul Anderson, 1950

Anderson’s classic story of one-way time travel. You can go forward but not all the way backwards, and the stalwart 1950s protagonist, Martin Saunders, keeps skipping himself forward, along the surface of an infinite lake, hoping to find some civilization that has perfected backwards time travel so that he can return home to his girlfriend: the conveniently named Eve. He companion is killed in 2500 A.D., and he acquires a new one who searching the future for a sufficiently violent time that will have use for his martial skills. Martin stops in 50,000 A.D. and helps the Galactic Empress regain her throne, and is sent on alone into the future for his trouble. The human race eventually falls, and he is the last human man on Earth. Other races rise, but they are unable to help him. Eventually, weakly godlike entities upgrade his time machine to get him “home,” by having him dive ever deeper into the future. He sees the moon shatter and fall from the sky, the sun wither and die, and finally the heat-death of the entire universe, only for it to be reborn. Saunders keeps traveling, taking the longest way around. The universe is perfectly cyclical. He travels forward until he reaches the point at which he left, settling for the fretful girl who is certainly no beautiful Galactic Empress.

Saunders becomes The Last and First Man, cushioned on each end by millions of years. The exactly perfect cyclical universe is a bleak concept, a black pit of despair that for Neitzsche was the nightmare of being doomed to repeat every mistake you’ve ever made over and over again for eternity. But Anderson goes further than The Eternal Return, stripping uncertainty and free will from his minutely machined universe loop. It would take only the smallest of quantum hiccups in the deep past for conditions to change enough for Saunders to never have been born, or not a physicist, or or or. Anderson’s cold reality is stuck on repeat, growing more boring with every repetition of the same trillion trillion triliion sub-atomic events in perfect timing and order.


Nietzsche and der letzte Mensch

There has always beena contradiction in Nietzsche as he propounds both the notion of The Last Man (der letzte Mensch) and the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence in Also Sprach Zarathustra. How can he discuss the last of anything in a framework where every action, every combination of matter, must reoccur for all eternity? It is a temporary "last"? Doesn't the end of something become hollow when that end is endless? Is this the abyss?

But then, he did call the horror of the Eternal Return das schwerste Gewicht: "the heaviest weight imaginable." Maybe the true Last Man lifts that weight.

Is the Ouroboros eating itself eternally, or is it continuously vomiting itself into being?


The Twilight Zone, "The Mind and The Matter," 1961

Archibald Beechcroft hates the crowded modern world, finally working up to expressing the desire to wipe out all of humanity except for himself. Given a book, "The Mind and The Matter," Beechcroft learns the secret of "ultimate concentration." He then decides to apply his concentration to dealing with the existence of everyone else. He begins by concentrating away his irritating lady-lady. "Today, the landlady... tomorrow...the world!"

Encountering a crowded subway platform, he wishes all the people away. The turnstile admits him with a wag of his finger, the train arrives, automated now to make up for the disappeared conductor. The doors to his office even open when he shakes his newspaper at them. The crowded office is silent. He quickly grows bored at work (why is he at work?) and begins talking to himself in reflections. He grows so bored he even triggers an earthquake, and then a storm.

Still talking to himself, he hits upon a solution: remake the population of the world, but in his image. Dyspeptic, anti-social, and constantly muttering, they are all him now, the women too. Played by the same actor and a few unconvincing masks. Beechcroft resigns himself to returning everything to as is was, bored by loniliness and horrified by literal self-loathing.

Wikipedia page

In many ways an expanded "5,271,009" or a more concise and personal The Lathe Of Heaven or Eye In The Sky. While many people takes away the message of "be careful what you wish for," Serling is, to me, making a more subtle point about the permanent intertwining of utopia and dystopia. They are so intertwined that they are the same thing. There are no perfect societies. Attempting to manufacture them is folly. But, then, I'm not too much on the explicit message that Serling puts in the coda. This is not the best of all possible worlds. Not by a long shot.

The episode could also be read as a rather frightening parable about solipsism. Is Beechcroft actually willing everyone out of existence? Is he a god? Or is he only willing away his perceptions of everyone, and thereby exhibiting an amazing ability to warp his own perceptions, a frighteningly compete control of his flow of subjective reality. Does only Beechcroft have the power? Does everyone have it? (The young man who gives Beechcroft the book relates an incident where he displayed powers to bend someone's will to his own.) Or only readers of the book? And what are the doomsday implications of a book that can turn anyone into a wide-awake George Orr? And assuming that Beechcroft's abilities are effecting objective reality and he is not unique, don't we have to wrap our minds around dueling solipsistic narratives struggling to reshape reality?

The Twilight Zone, "Where Is Everyboby?" 1959

A lone man dressed in an Air Force jumpsuit wanders into a deserted town. Music blares in the nearby cafe. He fixes himself something to eat, shouting out his actions to no one. A bell tolls in the empty town square. Every shop he checks is empty. He spys a woman in a car and tells her he is an amnesiac. When he draws near, she is a mannequin. He continues to talk to her. When a phone rings, he races toward it, and finds no one on the line. Dialing, he reaches an automated operator. He calls for help on a police radio. Panic finally begins to set in and he runs through the streets, yelling the titular question. He begs to wake up and marvels at the detail of his dream. Dejectedly, he spins a paperback rack in the drugstore. All the titles are The Last Man On Earth. When night falls, the town lights up. He is drawn to the movie theater. The movie poster features a figure dressed like him. He speculates that his military uniform means that there has been "a bomb." When the movies begins, he climbs to the projection room. Finding no one, has runs into the lobby and into a mirror. Now in a complete panic, he runs back out in the street. Everything begins to take on paranoid significance. Clinging to a lamppost, he desperately presses the "walk" button to change the stoplight.

The scene changes to a room of men listening to him beg for help. He is in an isolation chamber, part of an experiment to test how a man will stand up to the loneliness of a lunar trip. He has been in the box for 20 days.

Wikipedia page

"Where Is Everybody?" was the first episode of The Twilight Zone that aired. The character's mind does make an effective nightmare to torture him with. The panic of amnesia. The cruel taunt of the mannequin. The dozens of books titled as his growing fear that he may be the last man on Earth. But it also gives him breadcrumbs to find his way out. The Air Force jumpsuit. He is hungry yet stumbles upon a stocked cafe and soda shop. He even has money in his pockets, so that he won't feel like he's stealing the food. And even though it is ultimately a twist ending, keeping Rod Serling from having to deal with the roundabout of dealing with a character that really is the last man on Earth, the isolation feels real, as does the creation of a claustropobic feeling in open air filming.

I do wonder how much of the imagary was influenced by The World, The Flesh, and The Devil, which was released in theaters only 5 months earlier.


The Underdweller, William F. Nolan, 1957

Lewis Stillman loots the convenience stores of Los Angeles at night, creeping past and hiding from small gangs of inhuman enemies: “They came closer, crowding the walk, their small dark bodies crowding the walk, six of them, chattering, leaping, cruel mouths open, eyes glittering under the moon.” Stillman ruminates on lost love and the precariousness of his existence. He is lonely and searches for survivors of his like kind. Three years of searching Los Angeles has convinced him that he is the last man alive in the city. Stillman sleeps in the storm drains, tormented by dreams of women or of being caught. The storm drains are how he survived the unprovoked attack by aliens that killed every other man and woman six years earlier. For three years he worked with his enemies and for three years he has run from them. Stillman fashions human figures for company and argues with them as he goes insane. Venturing forth to find books to read, he comes upon a bookstore they have destroyed, ripping the pages out of thousands of volumes. Stillman has been lured into a trap and they attack him in force. He kills as many as he can with a machine gun, but is overwhelmed in a tide of feral children.

"The Underdweller" is a variant title. It has also appeared under the title "Small World" and "The Small World Of Lewis Stillman."

Curtis and The Last Man On Earth

The rather innocuous daily newspaper comic strip Curtis is using a wish-granting mouse to explore the old saw that peace on Earth is only capable on a depopulated planet. The wish that the character Andrew make leaves him the last person on Earth. Andrew goes on to drive fancy cars and sleep in "grand bedrooms."

Andrew wanders an empty Manhattan.


The Twilight Zone, "Two," 1961

Another heavy-handed Cold War parable from The Twilight Zone. Wikipedia already contains a fine synopsis. While it is never specified that the characters are the only remaining humans, the shadow of The Shaggy-God falls over the whole affair.

Even though billed in the voiceover as taking place "perhaps a hundred years from now, or sooner, or perhaps it's already happened two million years," Charles Bronson speaking English and Elizabeth Montgomery speaking Russian doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room. At least we are spared them being explictily identified as Adam and Eve.

Season 3, episode 66, written and directed by Montgomery Pittman.

While the similarities are suspicious, I imagine John Christopher's "Two" (1952) was probably not directly taken by Pittman for his plot. The durability of The Shaggy-God story is such that it seems to spontaneously erupt in science fiction cautionary tales. It was used in at least two other Twilight Zone episodes, after all: "Probe 7, Over And Out" and "Third From The Sun." (Although to be fair, "Third" is really more of an "ancient astronauts" riff.)

"Two," John Christopher, 1952

Protagonist has traveled the world looking for signs of life in major cities, only to find them empty. Everyone else is dead of radiation poisoning and he was spared because of a special serum. All warm-blooded mammals are dead in Europe. He sails for The Middle East, "the land of the two great rivers." He walks until he encounters a land rich with all types of plants and animals. In his loneliness, he wakes up to find thw woman he has wished for sleeping beside him. The final line: "'I am Adam,' he told her, 'and you are Eve."

One page Cold War/Shaggy-God mash-up. Cribs from Shelley's The Last Man and Sheil's The Purple Cloud. Lands on the page with an audible thud.

Not listed in the ISFDB entry on Christopher. The story might have its only publication in Esquire, May, 1952.

See also "Two"