Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Book Review: The Purple Cloud

The Purple Cloud (Frontiers of Imagination)The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 1901 novel is one of the earliest "last man on Earth" scenarios and has long been considered a classic of science fiction in general and post-apocalyptic fiction in particular. It involves a man who goes on a polar expedition and returns to find the human race wiped out by a poisonous purple vapor. He then has to reconcile himself to being the last member of the human race.

Shiel was a masterful writer and the story of the man's adventures and his psychological breakdown are richly told. So richly, in fact, that I used the dictionary app on my Kindle several times per chapter! While the late Victorian prose slows things down at times, it also makes for an enjoyable read that does not feel too dated. I found myself being carried along with the man's thoughts and reactions to a world gone horribly wrong. Shiel obviously put a lot of thought into the character as well as humanity's place in the world.

A couple of minuses: there's an awkward framing device of a medium recounting this as something that would happen in the future. Many early works of weird fiction do something along these lines (see The Night Land and the Worm Ouroboros) and it's always distracting.Skim that first part. It and adds nothing to the story.

I also found it hard to believe that twenty years after the apocalypse, devices such as telephones and motors still work, and houses are still perfectly preserved. Despite this, I enjoyed this book tremendously and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to explore the early years of the genre.

Note: This book exists in three different texts, each slightly different than the other. This review is of the edition reproduced by Project Gutenberg, which I believe is the 1901 novel version rather than the serialized magazine version of that same year.

View all my reviews


Rusty Carl said...

As someone I respect mightily as a writer once said, we've not been writing novels for that long, we're still figuring it out. One of my favorite novels is Starmaker (or is that Star Maker? I can't remember). Anyway, it's barely a novel at all. It isn't as old as The Purple Cloud, but still, narratively, it's way different than anything I've seen in print before.

D.G. Hudson said...

I like early science fiction, even with the old-style covers on the stories. A friend once gave us a box full of scifi from the 1950s. We kept all the classic Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, but discarded the bulk of them. Good for you, Sean, I'll always like science fiction.

Thanks for the info on the book. Interesting.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I am intrigued now. I will go look it up. As a boy, I was fascinated by THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE TIME MACHINE, and THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND.

You're right: the dated prose takes a bit of getting used to, but decades from now so will the prose of HARRY POTTER!

Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

You can also find him on his Twitter feed and Facebook page.