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November/December 2010
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The Last American, by John Ames Mitchell (1889)

FICTIONAL forecasts of America's imminent, nasty, and assuredly well-deserved doom probably first materialized about twenty-four hours after the founding of the nation. Popular during the sixties (see Norman Spinrad's 1970 story "The Lost Continent"), such stirring Cassandran depictions remain in vogue today, as witness the fine novel Julian Comstock (2009) by Robert Charles Wilson.

Roughly in the middle of the nation's history to date comes The Last American. Depicting the first-ever Persian expedition to a depopulated and desolate North America during the year 2951, Mitchell's novel delivers some genuine speculative jabs amidst its dominant satirical thrusts.

Landing in the ruins of New York City (the shattered Statue of Liberty, dedicated only in 1886, makes what is perhaps her earliest mandatory appearance as iconic vestige of a glorious past), our cardboard Moslems, all given pun-based names, recount to each other the decadent history of the vanished "Mehrikans." Not only was the nation brought low by the perfidious Irish, circa 1990, but even climate change conspired against us! Duplicitous financial instruments played their part in our downfall as well, although Bernie Madoff is not cited by name. The result: a continent of Ozymandiasian moral lessons.

After journeying to Washington, D.C., the foreign explorers meet the titular survivor, a fur-clad savage, and his family. Attempting civilized discourse, the visitors nevertheless precipitate a slaughter on both sides. A statue of George Washington bows his head in shame.

Mitchell (1844-1918), a trained architect, wrote several other novels, and founded Life magazine in the days before Henry Luce.

—Paul Di Filippo

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