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Lift Me Somehow

The Last Man on Earth

Edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg & Charles G. Waugh 

9 Mar, 2023

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1985’s The Last Man on Earth was edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, & Charles G. Waugh. The theme uniting the anthology is straightforward and obvious from the title: each story focuses on the last man on Earth. Well, very nearly.

Asimov provided the introductions and the sales-friendly name. If I recall correctly, Greenberg was a talented IP rights lawyer. Perhaps Waugh did the heavy lifting of selecting stories?

Vocabulary has changed somewhat since 1982. In 1982 some could still argue that man’ was an all-inclusive term that covered women as well, just as Canadian’ is sufficient to convey the concept of all humanity throughout space and time. My memory is that there had been considerable pushback on this point for years before The Last Man on Earthwas published. Regardless, a number of stories focus on women as something like a necessary supply, a supply that ranks with food, water, and cigars.

(The short story Eddie for short” upends expectations re last man” by having a woman protagonist. However, there are other issues here that will probably distress the modern reader.)

This collection contains a mix of stories. Some will be familiar to veteran SF readers. Some have been forgotten and even SF oldbies might not have encountered them. The collection is also a mix of stories worth reading and stories that don’t work. One might expect that the familiar stories would be the good ones and the obscure stories the ones that don’t quite work. But as I read, it became apparent that not every well-known story had withstood the test of time and that not every obscure tale deserved obscurity.

Result: a list of some forgotten authors I want to track down. Their other works may be worth reviving. I don’t at all regret the time I spent reading this collection.

The Last Man on Earth is out of print.

Introduction (The Last Man on Earth) • (1982)essay by Isaac Asimov

Asimov muses on the origins of the last man on Earth; this essay reminded me the science fact columns he wrote for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The Underdweller” • (1974) • short story by William F. Nolan (variant of Small World 1957)

Aliens delivered methodical death to the Earth, removing a potential rival. Only a single man was left to flee from the predators who now dominate Earth’s cities.

Ah, a variation on the old no man may harm me” gambit. Different solution, though.

Flight to Forever • (1950) • novella by Poul Anderson

A pioneering time traveler discovers too late that there are certain intrinsic limitations to time travel. Unable to return to his wife, he travels into the future, hoping the problem will be solved by some future civilization. Denied immediate gratification, he travels on. And on. And on.

I’ve heard of this story but had never read it. ISFDB suggests it was not anthologized when I was actively seeking out Anderson stories. It encapsulates nicely Anderson’s views on humans and civilizations: that the nature of the first dooms the second, no matter how advanced.

Trouble with Ants • [City] • (1951) • novelette by Clifford D. Simak 

In danger of losing the Earth (now mostly populated by intelligent, kindly Dogs) to remorseless mutant ants, faithful robot Jenkins turns to the last humans for a solution. What they suggest reminds the robot that he had good reasons for turning his back on humans.

The coming of the ice” • (1926) • short story by G. Peyton Wertenbaker

The protagonist trades physical passion for agelessness, planning to share the centuries in an intellectual union with his beloved fiancée. She dies in a mishap almost immediately. This is the worst misfortune to befall our poor lonely hero but certainly not the last.

I note for the record that the doomed fiancée had to point out to the protagonist the bedchamber implications of trading passion for lifespan.

The most sentimental man” • (1957) • short story by Evelyn E. Smith

For what reason might a man remain on Earth while the rest of humanity decamps to the superior planets orbiting Alpha Centauri?

Eddie for short” • (1953) • short story by Wallace West

The last woman on Earth, spared atomic doom by mutant genes, embarks on a bold plan to save humanity from extinction.

The last white woman on Earth, I mean. She is fortunate enough to be sought out by and faithfully served by the last Black woman on Earth. However you’re imagining this, it’s worse. 

Knock” • (1948) • short story by Fredric Brown

Surviving the murder of humanity at the tool-graspers of aliens is only the first challenge to confront our hero.

This begins with one of the more famous lines in SF: The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.” There’s probably federal regulation requiring the inclusion of this Brown story in anthologies with a last man” theme.

Original sin” • (1946) • short story by S. Fowler Wright

Humanity having resolved to commit mass suicide, a man and his lover resolve to remain alive. Too late, the man discovers he failed to properly comprehend certain proclivities of his bride-to-be.

Best not to think about how long a population descended from two people would survive. In this case, it may not come to that; she may see children as rivals for her husband’s attention.

A Man Spekith • (1969) • novelette by Richard Wilson

Thanks to a megalomaniac toilet billionaire determined to be remembered for something other than toilets, the last surviving human is a DJ trapped in a space station. Unexpected rescue appears but isolation has taken its toll. It is not clear that the delusional DJ will be able to take advantage of it.

In the world’s dusk” • (1936) • short story by Edmond Hamilton

The last man on Earth sets out to restore the human race to Earth, only to receive a pointed lesson in the dangers of hubris.

Kindness” • (1944) • short story by Lester del Rey

A superior race of humans has replaced Homo Sapiens. What to do with the last representative of that once-great race?

Many golden age stories would end by cramming our poor Homo Sap into an atomic disintegration chamber, but these people try to find a better way.

Lucifer” • (1964) • short story by Roger Zelazny

The last man on Earth does his pitiful best to restore a hint of the world before doomsday.

I habitually check stories to see if I encountered them before — in this case yes, in the collection The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth and Other Stories—but what caught my eye this time was discovering that NESFA did a six-volume series of Zelazny collections. Is that every short story RZ wrote?

Resurrection” • (1949) • short story by A. E. van Vogt (variant of The Monster” 1948)

Curios aliens make the terrible and final mistake of resurrecting a human.

The second-class citizen” • (1963) • short story by Damon Knight

Humanity’s long effort to render the Earth’s land surface uninhabitable having succeeded, a researcher who struggled to turn dolphins into second-rate humans must learn to become a second-rate dolphin.

Day of judgment” • (1946) • short story by Edmond Hamilton

Earth’s new masters are horrified to discover not all of the terrible beings who nearly killed the Earth died in atomic fire. Is peace possible? 

Continuous performance” • (1974) • short story by Gordon Eklund

A lone man survives, surrounded by androids. A mysterious girl, seemingly as human as he, is too wonderful a development to ignore.

As it turns out, the last man is kind of an entitled bigot, reacting to the new order as gracefully as a 1974 husband finding out that he might have to learn to cook.

The New Reality • (1950) • novelette by Charles L. Harness

Only the censor and her stalwart crew stand between humanity and knowledge that could doom reality itself. Every defense has its limits.

Unfortunately, including this story in this particular anthology rather spoils (or at least greatly constrains) the ending