A Review of The Last Day and the First

Alexander Glass on a new novella by Tim Lebbon

My name is Rose, and I’m the last woman left alive.

— Tim Lebbon, The Last Day and the First
Cover art by Tomislav Tikulin

Tim Lebbon has been to the end of the world before. Specifically the collapse of human civilisation, as in the British Fantasy Award–winning novella White (2014), and repeatedly in a number of novels and short stories. Lebbon is much possessed by the death of humanity, although the seeds of apocalypse vary – from a pandemic in Bar None (2008), through an eruption of zombies from an alternate reality in Coldbrook (2012), to catastrophic climate change in The Last Storm (2022). The common thread is the humanity with which Lebbon depicts humanity’s end.

In his new novella The Last Day and the First (PS Publishing, 2023) he shows us the last days of human civilisation, but this time the cause is left largely unexplained, though it is deftly alluded to. We know that no more children are born, and the last humans are aging to extinction: narrator Rose is a hundred and three, and plausibly believes herself to be the last remaining human. We know that following a societal collapse, pockets of humanity survived in small, self-sufficient homesteads, but that the former urban spaces, and the roads connecting them, are made perilous by the scorers – ‘beings with sharp limbs and dry stone teeth’ – whose origins are also unclear. We know that, after more decades have passed, the scorers themselves might be diminishing, perhaps for lack of prey, perhaps because they are in some way avatars of the worst creations of humanity. And we know that a new, stranger life form is beginning to emerge.

Detailed explanation is not needed here, because a rationalised consideration of the mechanism of change is not the point of the novella. The point is how we might respond to the inevitability of that change.

Humans are unusual in taking the time to contemplate not only individual mortality but also the mortality of our species. But we go even further: our visions of the demise of humanity are often bittersweet. We do not want to believe in our own extinction, and of course our disbelief may yet hasten it before our ingenuity can avert it. At the same time, we often see that demise as having compensations, particularly the possibility of renewal of the natural world. During lockdown, little moments of wonder and joy were provided by wild boar and deer wandering, curious, into our suddenly-silent spaces. Long before that, in the polite apocalypses of John Wyndham, in George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, even in Stephen King’s more defiant The Stand, beneath the struggle to survive there is almost a longing for a world without humanity, or perhaps a nostalgia for a notional utopia before we existed. The Eden before Adam.

Lebbon, both honouring and twisting this theme, hints at a kind of Eden after we are gone – perhaps, at least partly, because we are gone. Here, the last day of the title is Rose’s own. She tells us of it by means of home-made ink and a feather to write her last account – a testament, but not a will, since no one remains to whom she can bequeath what little property remains. She also tells us of civilisation’s fall and what came after; of the discovery of a new species, which she calls the blooms: possibly plant-based, but mysteriously sentient and mobile (like Wyndham’s triffids, though unlike them in any other respect); and of the fates of other humans she has known. All of this is accomplished in sixty pages, but the novella does not feel overburdened. Lebbon’s prose is confident and controlled. Rose’s voice in particular is skilfully done.

The first day of the title is unlikely to come as a surprise, especially to readers who have also been to the end of the world before, whether with Lebbon or with others. The world turns, change floods over it, empires and species rise and fall. But, again, surprise is not the point here, though there are some nice and clever details (the change in the scorers’ diet; the variations in form of the blooms). Lebbon is not aiming for a tyre-shrieking twist or horrifying reveal. Rather, he paints a thoughtful and delicate picture of Rose’s thoughts about the deaths of people she has known and loved, the fading of the human species, and her own end. She retains a sense of hope despite all of these demises: hope for the future without humanity.

Lebbon succeeds in having the reader understand and appreciate, and perhaps even share, not only Rose’s acceptance but also her hope. That is a real achievement given the parallel strands of horror, struggle, loss and grief that are woven through the narrative. In spite of all of those, it is the hope that lingers in the mind. The denouement is a simple act of communication between our species and the one that, perhaps, will replace us – simple, but surprisingly moving.

The world Lebbon has sketched out here – free of human activity, the grind of industry and commerce, the striving, the hoarding, the struggle – is autumnal, quietly melancholy, but somehow fitting, almost comforting; a new legend of the Fall.

Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital. and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, forthcoming in Interzone #296.

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