Together with the dystopia, the post-apocalypse survival story is probably the subgenre of science fiction that has been most readily assimilated into the mainstream. This is presumably because it is more easily accepted by those who are not in the regular habit of reading science fiction—no weird timey-wimey stuff to contend with, no quantum physics or alien planets or odd-sounding names—and also perhaps because it is that much easier to spot echoes and parallels with contemporary real-world concerns. For the writer of a post-apocalypse novel, the trick lies in updating the nature of the catastrophe to make it seem directly relevant to prospective readers by tying it to the time and place in which it was written. It is no accident that a large number of post-apocalypses written in the 1960s feature nuclear warfare scenarios, while more recently we've seen the world made to crumble under the weight of eco-catastrophes, global pandemics and, more latterly, financial meltdowns.
Regular readers of Strange Horizons may remember my review of Peter Heller's debut novel The Dog Stars (2012), a post-apocalypse story set in Colorado and featuring survivors of two concurrent worldwide flu epidemics. The book eventually made it on to this year's Clarke Award shortlist, where it came in for some stiff criticism alongside some sharp advocacy. Whilst I admired much of the writing in The Dog Stars, in the end I felt frustrated and annoyed by what seemed to me to be a very American apocalypse, with its emphasis firmly on firepower and with the women kept mostly out of sight behind the barricades. The science fiction was shaky too, and a terse reminder that a fancy prose style isn’t always enough to rescue a dodgy premise. All in all, The Dog Stars seemed to me to be a typical example of the half-baked, middle-of-the-road kind of science fiction that frequently surfaces in the mainstream: a sentimental story of good-guys-versus-bad-guys, played out against a conveniently depopulated world in a woefully derivative manner.
I'd definitely had enough of catastrophe novels, at least for a while. But when I heard about Davide Longo's The Last Man Standing I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Published in the original Italian in 2010, the book was issued in English translation by MacLehose/Quercus in October 2012. It appeared not to have been submitted for the 2013 Clarke Awards and I couldn't help but wonder why not. It clearly has a science fictional premise. Like The Dog Stars it even features a dog as a main character! Its European provenance makes it immediately appealing and, in a subgenre so heavily dominated by the Americans, unusual. Could The Last Man Standing be the apocalypse that got away? The novel's recent reissue in paperback offers the chance for a new swathe of readers to decide that interesting question for themselves.
The "last man standing" of the title is Leonardo, a writer and university teacher who, a number of years before the story begins, was the subject of a sexual scandal involving a student. Divorced from his wife and daughter and living in self-imposed exile from his colleagues and from his own writing, Leonardo has clearly been in freefall for some time. The novel opens in the near future, where worsening economic conditions in Italy have led to the partial breakdown of society. Vigilantism and casual criminality are on the increase, and the state authorities can no longer be relied upon to protect the citizenry. With the cities unsafe to live in, Leonardo is making his way back to his home village in the north of the country. At first, a winnowed-down kind of life seems possible. The stores are still open and trading, and Leonardo's erstwhile neighbors, who have known him since childhood, are happy to welcome him back. But inevitably, the secure position of the village attracts unwanted attention, and its inhabitants live in constant fear of incursions by "outsiders." When two of these outsiders are captured in the hills, the villagers are divided about what to do with them. The men themselves seem harmless—but will their presence encourage more unwanted immigrants?
At this point there was an exchange of views on what should be done. Someone suggested taking the two men away and letting them go on the understanding they must not set foot in the district again, but it was explained to him that there could be no guarantee that they would do what they were told. They might just as well be given one of the abandoned houses and a piece of land to cultivate to stop them going around thieving. But if news of this got about, it might attract other strays to the area. (p. 108)
The eventual summary execution of the two men is the most serious outward sign of how irrevocably life has changed. When Leonardo's ex-wife Alessandra arrives in the village with Leonardo's daughter Lucia and her own son by a second marriage, Alberto, there is no escaping the need to take some sort of action. Alessandra wants Leonardo to take care of the children while she goes in search of her missing husband. She promises to return in a fortnight, but she does not. When Leonardo's house is robbed and trashed by a gang of outsiders, he decides that now is the time to head for the Swiss border, and apparent safety. Within less than forty-eight hours the trio (plus aforementioned dog) are robbed of their car and almost everything in it. They begin the long walk back to the village—but it is at this point that their problems truly begin.
There are many things to admire about this novel, chief among them the writing itself. Longo's style is poetic, discursive, and highly personal. Character is never sacrificed to plot, and the text is rich with literary and philosophical allusions. In his descriptions of the natural world especially, Longo excels. I particularly admired the way the descriptive passages are sewn into the fabric of the text, not as mere stage dressing but as succinct, sideways reflections on the action:
"Gangs. People say they're searching for outsiders, that they're everywhere and that it's not true that the army has dealt with them. I haven't seen them. I did see two bodies on the pavement, but they weren't outsiders."
Leonardo picked a ladybird from a leaf and watched it walk on his finger. It was a pale orange and extremely elegant. In the heavy midday silence he imagined the sound of its footsteps. (p. 44)
The Last Man Standing is quite clearly the work of a sensitive stylist. More than that though, throughout its length Longo's novel exudes the sense of itself as what we might call a meant work: a work that meant something to its writer, that was meant as a particular vehicle not just for telling a story but to convey a personal vision. This artistic sense of self is perhaps the first and most important prerequisite for a work of fiction to succeed as literature, and this novel has it.
On a purely science fictional level, the book scores points also. A central problem with so many more anodyne apocalypses is that they tend to stick too rigidly to what we might call the Wyndham template: man wakes to find world changed, man goes around finding out more about the changes, man makes catastrophic error of judgement and winds up in a desperate situation, man overcomes desperate situation and (usually with a band of like-minded comrades) heads towards a staging-post Eden to help the world regroup. We should not begrudge Wyndham the continuing popularity of his original formula—he more or less invented the modern catastrophe novel, after all—but The Day of the Triffids was written more than half a century ago now, and it's surely time we sought out new ways of approaching such stories.
For a good proportion of this book, I felt excited by what Longo had done in this respect. For one thing, the nature of his catastrophe remains unclear throughout. There is no "trigger point" for change, no bomb, no pandemic, no seismic changes in climate. Rather, we are given to understand that the breakdown of society in Longo's future Italy has come about through an escalating number of smaller incidents and mini-disasters, largely connected with a disintegrating economy presided over by a corrupt government. The whole scenario feels more pragmatic, more arbitrary, and therefore more disquietingly believable than your average fictional apocalypse, all the more so because of the confusion and indecision of the people caught up in it. We never find out what conditions are really like beyond the borders of Italy, and for the first quarter of the novel, Leonardo is scream-inducingly passive, stumbling from one small crisis to the next with no plan of action and no great sense of urgency either. His tendency to inaction, coupled with his habit of filtering events through passages in Tolstoy or Flaubert, is deeply annoying, yet also interesting, because it feels real, or rather feels real in relation to this character. No heading off into the hills with a shotgun for Leonardo—he just wants, as might the rest of us, to be left alone to live the life he was previously living.
It was a truth he had painfully been forced to acknowledge for some time, at least to himself, that the creative force in life was extravagance rather than tightfistedness, gambling rather than calculation, and that every true creative act was born of risk taking, without which nothing better than sterile repetition was ever possible. History and the march of civilization had been a long and successful attempt to reassure the meek and cowardly, constantly disguising in new clothes a terrible and hypocritical reasoning in favour of logic, morality and beauty. He with his profession, his books, his long slender body devoid of malice was merely the ultimate development of this trend, like a fussy piece of lace worked with great skill for the sole purpose of lying covered with dust and compliments on some aunt's bedside table. (p. 49)
It is through passages such as these that Longo fights hard to avoid the sterile repetition of so many other recent catastrophe novels. The switch from third person to first person for the middle section of the narrative adds a neat change of pace, and the action as it unfolds is also interestingly weird. Following a series of minor misadventures, Leonardo and the two kids are eventually taken prisoner by a convoy of juvenile delinquents under the leadership of a new-messiah-type individual named Richard. Psychotic Jesuses are not exactly a rarity in the post-apocalyptic subgenre. The wearily charismatic Coker in The Day of the Triffids, Randall Flagg in Stephen King's The Stand (1978), and Charles in Adrian Barnes's recent novel Nod are all typical examples. But the particular circumstances of Leonardo's captivity and the bizarre, Lord of the Flies-type behavior of the chaos convoy add something of freshness and danger to the trope, and the final confrontation between Richard and Leonardo (and this in spite of Leonardo's implausible transformation into a character from one of the Saw movies) feels genuinely tense.
Sadly, the final quarter of the book does not work nearly as well. The pace slackens as Leonardo and his mini-entourage head for those mythical sunlit uplands so beloved of the subgenre. In taking this course, the novel exposes one of the key weaknesses of the post-apocalypse story: with so many crowding the market, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine much in the way of variation on the theme. What choice does the writer have at the end, other than to a) ruthlessly kill everyone off or b) lead a chosen few to safety and with hope in sight? One of the reasons I rather liked Nod was that it was left open ended. The narrator was probably doomed, but perhaps not quite. Similarly with Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006)—the ending offers no soggy compromise with the horrifically bleak picture that has been painted throughout, whilst at the same time it holds out the sliver of hope that is necessary for the book to resonate with a wider audience. In the case of The Last Man Standing, we might excuse the ending itself, if not for its disappointingly sentimental and preachy tone. Indeed, the whole book goes a little bit Life of Pi on us as Leonardo becomes a kind of bard of legend, taking gifts of food and clothing from the assembled extras in exchange for the stories he tells:
When the men and women got to the beach it would already be night. They would gather in silence around Leonardo, extinguish their lanterns and sit in silent expectation. The fire would endow their deprived faces with an unqualified beauty and transform their necklaces of tinplate and shells into precious jewels. Most of them had no idea where the stories they were listening to had been written or who had written them, but they intuited, like animals predicting the coming of a storm or an earthquake, that there was mystery in Leonardo's words, and that the mystery was life pure and simple. (p. 342)
Bear in mind that this is no lost colony. Even if none of them were great readers, the "noble savages" listening to their sage in this scene would have been able to buy a DVD of Keira Knightley playing Anna Karenina in the film adaptation of Tolstoy's novel less than two years before the events of this novel take place. I don't think I'd be alone in finding Longo's extrapolations here far-fetched, to say the very least.
An even bigger problem for me, however, is the way women are represented in this novel. To say that Longo's female characters lack agency in The Last Man Standing would be putting it mildly. Almost from the beginning, the narrative is filled with accounts of women being trafficked and raped. In an exchange near the start of the novel, Elio, a friend of Leonardo's from his village who has recently been invalided out of the army, explains to Leonardo how he and his comrades worked the border patrol:
"When unauthorized groups turned up, the first squad would demand payment to let them through, and if they had no money would ask if they were prepared to lend their women for an hour or two. If they refused they were sent back and if they agreed they were let through. Then the other squad would intercept them further down, pack them into a lorry and take them back over the border. The squads switched places once a week." (p. 92)
"Lend their women"? Did Longo really not think that some women at least might have something to say about being "lent out"? Did all the escape convoys have to be organized and led by men? There's so much wrong with this scene, in all senses of the word, that it's almost laughable. Regrettably, the novel offers us plenty more like it.
One could argue of course that Longo is attempting to highlight the brutal and lawless treatment that continues daily to be meted out to women in times of war or economic hardship or just whenever. This would be a worthy aim, and I would be the first to applaud it, were it not for the fact that the scenarios meted out to women generally in this novel are so poor. Leonardo's daughter Lucia is almost silent for much of the narrative, and robbed of her voice completely for the final third. She is described mainly in terms of her appearance, her Madonna-like gentleness, her tractability. From these descriptions I imagined her as a ten-year-old child, and it came as considerable shock when Longo reveals about half way through that she is in fact seventeen.
One of the most potentially interesting characters in the book is a former midwife named Evelina, who first appears when Richard accepts her as "payment" for allowing a group of soldiers to pass by on the road. Evelina is self-possessed, and brave, and clearly highly intelligent, yet the characteristic most lingered over by Longo is her obesity. Here Evelina recounts how she first met her husband Gianni, an academic historian:
"Gianni arrived the next day from Germany. He was a very small man of nearly seventy. I was forty at the time. He wanted to speak to me about the birth. We talked briefly in front of the coffee machine, not more than a few minutes. Apart from his politeness, nothing particularly impressed me about that frail man with thick hair. As for me, with my physique I didn’t think any man could be attracted to me, not even one so much older." (p. 276)
Embarrassing to read, isn't it? Shortly after this, we are treated to a big set piece in which Leonardo is forced by Richard to have sex with Evelina at gunpoint in front of a crowd of jeering delinquents. In spite of this ritualized humiliation, the two become friends. But Evelina is clearly too unconventional and too much her own woman to last out the story. She's soon led off to be shot, or re-traded—we never find out which—and that's the last we hear of her. A similar fate awaits Silvia, a woman Leonardo becomes intent on rescuing after she is repeatedly and brutally abused by Richard. Silvia, a former rape crisis counselor, survives just long enough to deliver a lecture to Leonardo on post traumatic stress disorder before sneaking off to hang herself in an oak tree.
It would take me a long time and too much space to detail all the instances of backhanded sexism in The Last Man Standing. From the general tone of the book, I would lay money on the fact that Longo delivered his manuscript completely unaware of how these portions of the narrative might be perceived, and in all likelihood believing his portrayal of the women in his story to be compassionate and well rounded. How far noble intent goes towards assuaging such a misjudgement is of course debatable.
I really wanted to admire this book, because I liked the writing very much, the author's willingness to take narrative risks, to be discursive, to leave some rough edges, and it is a measure of the novel’s real qualities that I find myself still undecided about it. Half of me would like to recommend it to others as a catastrophe novel that feels very different from the homogenized, Hollywoodized versions of these stories that are becoming increasingly and regrettably the norm—I would much rather have seen The Last Man Standing on the Clarke Award shortlist than the insipid and sentimental The Dog Stars. All the more of a pity then that the book's faults were so insistent and so pervasive that the other half of me finds Longo's novel memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, is available from PS Publishing. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.
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