The Purple Cloud is often referred to as the 20th century’s first great science fiction novel. Published in the first year of the new century, the 1901 adventure from M. P. Shiel still retains its reputation as one of the superior examples of a genre it helped to form and mold: the last man on earth.
Following in the tradition of the novel which lent the genre its name—Mary Shelley’s 1826 seminal work The Last Man—which was further refined by Richard Jeffries’ After London and made most famous in The Time Machine by H.G. Wells—The Purple Cloud is the tale of the lone survivor of an apocalyptic natural disaster in which the rest of the planet’s population succumbs to an unstoppable cloud of toxic volcanic gas.
Adam Jeffson manages to become the sole survivor through a twisted fate involving a reward of $175,000,000 promised to the first person to make it to the North Pole and back and the murderous temptation that this reward in his fiancée. As a result of her malevolent influence, Jeffson manages to be last man standing rather her own ill-fated cousin originally scheduled for the expedition. Jeffson only manages to learn of the global genocide caused by the purple cloud on his way back to civilization and the bulk of the novel is his trek from the slow revelation of the full extent of the catastrophe and the even slower descent into full-blown madness that culminates in a 17-year-long effort to construct a magnificent palace to himself on an island. The latter portion of the novel details the complicated relationship that ensues when his effort to burn down the city of Constantinople unexpectedly divulges the only survivor he ever manages to find: a young woman as ignorant of everything about the world as she is naked when she appears.
In 1959, a film very loosely adapted from the novel was released. Starring Harry Belafonte, the film was retitled The World, the Flesh and the Devil.